Life Skills: How Can We Fill in the Gaps Before Graduation?

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Life Skills: How Can We Fill in the Gaps Before Graduation?

Marisa Vernon
Tonisha Glover
Cuyahoga Community College

Identifying the Skill Gaps

Engage any faculty member or administrator several weeks into the semester and you’re likely to hear about the skills students have somehow failed to pick up during their prior educational experiences. Even the most compassionate educators have vented to a colleague or two about the basic “life” skills today’s college students seem to be missing. If they only knew how to manage their time, we say; if they could only critically think about problems; if they only would just ask for help.  In conversation among academics and student affairs professionals alike, we discuss these gaps often, but struggle to find ways to help students actually develop in these areas. The academic calendar is full, the syllabus already exploding with necessary content. We are confident students are going to develop these skills before they walk across the stage, but we are rarely intentional about helping this process along.

Hiring managers, parents of students, and perhaps even students themselves are concerned about the impact these gaps in communication skills, resiliency, motivation, and problem-solving can have on long-term personal success. These skills, it seems, provide the foundation for handling whatever life throws at a college graduate.

For the community college student, and specifically those pursuing career and technical pathways, the timeline to develop strong “life” skills is relatively short, though critical. I recently worked with a young student who had completed several levels of a medical program and begun working within the field while obtaining his next credential. Experiencing his first major trauma on the job, the student seemingly lost his ability to put the incident in perspective, respond with resiliency, and balance his first high stress work environment with his role as a student. Like many students, education and training had prepared him for the work. However, the incident brought some gaps in preparedness to the surface.

Through a recent conversation with an area employer, as well as a faculty and staff survey, a member of our team highlighted three major skills areas on which we hope to focus student development efforts over the next few years. While the specific terminology came as a result of anecdotes and conversation, Communication, Problem-Solving, and Motivation were identified as the key areas in which many college students (and graduates) are lacking. One could argue that many of the desirable skills identified by employers fall within or are synonymous with these three areas as well.

Before addressing these skills gaps through intentional student development programming, co-curricular support, or within the traditional classroom setting, it is important to understand the areas themselves. Since motivation, communication, and problem-solving serve as factors directly contributing to success in a variety of endeavors, a quick literature review focused on these topics produces an extensive backdrop to the story.

Fear not, busy faculty member, overworked administrator, or dedicated staff member; a member of my team and I have completed the arduous literature review component for you.

How to Use This Article

This edition is slightly different from other articles published in my column, as I wanted to highlight the work of a graduate practicum student who worked alongside me in a recent semester. During the practicum experience, she was tasked with creating three online modules to address the skills gaps identified by our Student Life team detailed above. To begin this process and brainstorm ideas for delivering this student development content, she engaged in a review of the literature associated with the areas of motivation, communication, and problem-solving. By taking the time to learn more about these skills and how students internalize them, a foundation had been built from which intentional student development programming could be built.

It is my hope that the literature review below will generate discussion among your teams, inform the development of new initiatives to support student learning in these areas, and transform your teaching practices to help prepare our students for future success outside of the college environment.

Motivation and Resiliency

Many professors at various colleges and universities have complained about the lack of motivation from their students in the classroom; students seem more interested in social activities with peers in comparison to their academic responsibilities (Crone & MacKay, 2002). However, the literature states that professors must become familiar with the current generation of traditional college aged students and observe their personal academic goals and interests in order to learn what motivates them (Crone & MacKay, 2002) In a 2014 study, a total of 286 undergraduate students majoring in English, Physics, and Finance were given a series of questionnaires and surveys to test students’ perception of instructor’s teaching styles (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Results demonstrated that student learning was positively influenced when students perceive their instructor to be using both lecture based and discussion-based teaching strategies (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Additionally, students were most motivated when they felt their instructor listened to and expressed interest in their own thoughts and opinions (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). This may be because most traditional-aged college students are used to constant interaction and retaining strong bonds with family and peers and expect the same from their college community (Crone & MacKay, 2002).

In a qualitative study conducted by Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez (2011), 16 junior and senior high school students taking a Physics course at a local college were studied. Data was collected through observation notes, informal and formal interviews, and grades (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). During this study the researchers noticed that students empathized with one another when discussing the intensity and struggle of the course. These discussions promoted resiliency in one another as they relied on each other for motivation to get through and complete the course. Close friendships between students promoted motivation and healthy competition, creating a supportive atmosphere amongst students.  Students demonstrated emotional and academic support when classmates solved problems out loud (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). Sociable rivalry among the peers was influential since most students can be motivated by peer input and constructive criticism (Crone & MacKay, 2002).  Students served as mentors to one another as they provided information to peers who were lacking certain techniques and skills learned earlier in the course in an effort to keep one another on track for successful completion (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011).

Similar to the high school students, the online learners in Baxter’s (2012) study yearned for peer interaction and remained motivated to study for online courses when connected to family and peers outside of class. During this qualitative research study data was collected through 16 interviews from students taking an online course in efforts to receive feedback on progression and retention (Baxter, 2012). Baxter found that students adored their online tutor and viewed her as a role model for them when courses began to become difficult, and like the students in Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez’ (2011) case study, the tutor’s words of encouragement motivated students to excel in and complete the course (Baxter, 2012). Most students craved social interaction with their peers at the university and suggested “open days” for when students could meet up on campus (Baxter, 2012). Interaction with classmates outside of the classroom seems to be a natural desire for students and can produce motivation and accountability amongst one another (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). This soft skill of social collaboration is crucial for college students since most careers involves some type of collaboration and requires individuals to feel comfortable when working well with others in order to produce successful results (Holmes, 2014).

Problem Solving

Students and professionals face several unexpected challenges during their career for which they are responsible to make decisions in efforts to create a positive resolution (Holmes, 2014). Students who lack problem-solving skills will find it difficult to succeed in college and most professions (Holmes, 2014). Instructors and staff should advise students in a way that will challenge them to create their own resolution to a problem by asking prompting questions instead of providing an answer for the student (Crone & MacKay, 2002). When students are prompt to reflect, it can positively influence and increase their problem-solving abilities (Kauffman, Ge, Xie & Chen, 2008).

In a 2008 study, 54 undergraduate junior students majoring in Education interacted in an online module in which their problem-solving capability in an online environment was measured (Kauffman et al., 2008). Half of the students were given problem-solving prompts and half were given a reflection prompt (Kauffman et al., 2008). Students who were prompted to problem solve displayed a better understanding of the assignment and were more likely to problem solve in real life situations compared to students without a problem solving prompt (Kauffman et al., 2008). In addition to encouraging students to problem solve, Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez (2011) found that problem solving with peers in the classroom stimulated their interests and resulted in students exercising their problem solving techniques with peers outside of the classroom in authentic challenges. Conversing and expressing their feelings of pressure with peers encouraged students in their college level Physics course to problem solve (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011).

A review of accounting educators revealed that instructors fail to promote problem solving skills to their students when their dominant teaching strategy involved conceptual modules (Kern, 2002). In this study, researchers created a hands-on model to portray allocations and cost of goods by using a Fisher’s Price toy with colorful rings stacked on top of one another- biggest at the bottom and smallest at the top – then assessed student learning via questionnaire (Kern, 2002). Results revealed that student learning was retained and more effective when hands on models were used within an active learning environment (Kern, 2002). Students should be expected to be hands-on in their education, answering questions in class, creating examples, and participating in group work, in order to develop problem solving abilities (Kern, 2002). To improve this skill [problem solving] students should become hands-on with their learning and enroll in experiential courses when they are available (Holmes, 2014). Students are motivated to problem solve when they engage in experiential learning courses where they have to connect theory to practice (Crone & MacKay, 2002).

Communication

Many United States citizens believe that the most important skill to have as a college student is effective communication (Long, 2015). Many traditional-aged college students struggle with communication skills because they have mastered online interactions through social media, but lack experience with face-to-face conversations (Holmes, 2014). Communicating with professors and staff can be difficult for traditional-aged students because they may view the power and age gap as intimidating (Wecker, 2012). Students that are frequently engaging with others in a professional setting or constant talking with their professors in person during office hours seem to successfully hone communication skills naturally (Holmes, 2014). Students feel encouraged when the communication between themselves and the instructor shows that their thoughts and ideas are in fact valued (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Supportive communication from administration, faculty, and staff motivate students to complete their coursework (Baxter, 2012). Quality interaction between students, faculty and staff was a primary factor in retention for students taking an online course, where general face-to-face communication was limited (Baxter, 2012). Crone & MacKay (2002) stated that effective communication between professors and students can enhance students’ problem-solving abilities when professors use a specific method that encourages reflections, rather than direct answers. A professor at George Washington University uses humor when demonstrating his lack of exceptions for students who are not honest and refuse liability of their own decisions (Wecker, 2012). “College students should take responsibility for when they have made mistakes and focus more on improving for the future” (Wecker, 2012). The use of humor can assist with understanding and clarity of the course content and may boost students’ confidence in approaching their professor when they have a question (Myers & Goodboy, 2014).

Traditional-aged college students feel more confident in familiar situations when surrounded by peers with whom they share a close bond (Crone & MacKay 2002). In Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez (2011) study, communication between peers was significant to high school students’ progress in a college level Physics course and promoted motivation and problem-solving amongst the students.  Frequent communication and interaction between peers developed a mentorship among the students, which resulted in a sense of accountability among the group. Likewise, students engaging in an online course glorified their constant communication with the tutor and looked to her as inspiration to complete the class (Baxter, 2012). Discussing and communicating anxiety and stress to other peers who are in similar situations can promote motivation and problem solving (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). When students did not have a lot of peer interaction, they asked for access to their peers in efforts to communicate and become social with one another (Baxter, 2012).

Conclusion

The three skills discussed in the literature are all linked and impact one another in an individual. Motivation in college students can encourage students to become resilient in difficult situations. Resiliency is essential to student development and can strengthen individuals’ problem-solving abilities, which is heavily dependent upon communication skills. It is important that college students interact and communicate effectively with peers and professors in efforts to build and develop their passion (motivation) and confidence in their college experience. When students are passionate and comfortable with their situation, it can result in determination and the ability to adapt (resiliency) and sustain through unexpected challenges (problem solving).

The common theme overall is peer-peer and faculty-student interaction. It is important that college students build meaningful relationships with their peers in order to develop a sense of community. In 2014, Holmes named collaboration as one of the top five soft skills needed in the workforce after graduation.

As educators, how can we promote interaction and collaboration within our environments, especially in community colleges lacking residential environments? This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the two-year sector as we seek to develop students who are prepared for the modern workplace. Two-year college students need the same skills, and educators working in non-residential settings need to think creatively to promote interaction both in and out of the classroom.

Whether you work in a two- or four-year setting, with students living on or off campus, are you ensuring students leave equipped with these skills? If not, here are some suggestions for embedding these themes into your campus or department’s approach to student development:

  • Use these themes to develop department programming goals for the year, and align post-program student assessments to the skills discussed in this article.
  • Select one of the skills gaps as a campus or department theme for the year, and align co-curriculars, assignments, and student experiences around the common theme.
  • Review your college’s general education outcomes or departmental curriculum strategy. Are these skills represented, and if so, how can co-curricular strategies increase learning in these areas?
  • Develop modules to embed in your college’s First Year Experience seminar that promote peer-to-peer interaction and address the skills gaps listed above.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you observe other skills gaps among the students with whom you work? If so, what are they, and how do you believe students can fill in these gaps while in college?
  2. How do your Academic and Student Affairs areas partner to ensure students are obtaining the skills they need to be successful? Are there opportunities for collaboration or streamlining goals between the two areas?
  3. How would you incentivize students to participate in learning outside of the classroom in a non-residential environment? What do you believe motivates students to engage?

References

Alexakos, K., Jones, J. K., & Rodriguez, V. H. (2011). Fictive kinship as it mediates learning, resiliency,

perseverance, and social learning of inner-city high school students of color in a college physics

class. Culture Studies of Science Education, 6, 847-870. DOI: 10.1007/s11422-011-9317-7

Baxter, J. (2012). Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning students in higher education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13, 107-129.

Crone, I. & MacKay, K. (2002). Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from www.aacu.org/publications-research

Holmes, B. (2014, May). Hone the top 5 soft skills every college student needs. US News. Retrieved from www.usnews.com/education

Kauffman, D. F., Ge, X., & Chen, C. (2008). Prompting in web-based environments: Supporting self-monitoring and problem solving skills in college students. Educational Computing Research, 38, 115-137.

Kern, B. (2002). Enhancing accounting students’ problem-solving skills: The use of a hands-on conceptual model in an active learning environment. Accounting Education, 11, 235-256.

Long, C. (2015, March 23). The most important skill for students? Communication, say most Americans. The National Education Association. Retrieved from www.neatoday.org

Myers, S. A., & Goodboy, A. K. (2014). College student learning, motivation, and satisfaction as a function of effective instructor communication behaviors. Southern Communication Journal, 79, 14-26.

Russo, K. (2015, May). Hard skills vs soft skills: What they mean to your job search and the weight they carry with HR. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from www.thehuffingtonpost.com

Sirin, A., & Guzel, A. (2006). The relationship between learning styles and problem solving skills among college students. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 6, 255-264.

Wecker, M. (2012, September). 5 guidelines for college student-professor interactions. US News. Retrieved from www.usnews.com/education

About the Author
Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Tonisha Glover is a Master of Education student at Kent State University, focusing on identifying barriers to college completion, the first-generation student experience, and success factors among low-income student populations. During Spring 2016, she completed a graduate Internship at Cuyahoga Community College, where she developed learning modules to promote soft skill development among students during their early years in college. Tonisha Glover recently accepted a full-time Academic Advisor position at Kent State University, where she will be supporting first year students in exploring majors and academic programs to meet their goals.  

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

The Open Door to All: Can Community College’s Student Cohorts Truly Co-Exist?

The Open Door to All: Can Community College’s Student Cohorts Truly Co-Exist?

Marisa Vernon
Cuyahoga Community College

Open Access: A Melting Pot of Age, Experience, and Personal History

Within the state of Ohio, community colleges are busy welcoming an increased number of high school dual-enrolled students to our campuses. While community colleges have often served as the institutions of choice for high school partnership programs, recent changes to the former Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program have nudged many community colleges to revamp these relationships in order to adhere to new statewide standards.

The Ohio Department of Education has made strides in standardizing the state’s previously widely varied dual enrollment programs, thus extending the higher education experience to increased numbers of high school students. This standardization benefits students, colleges, and school districts by establishing guidelines for program delivery, structure, and funding formulas throughout the state.

Perhaps one of the most profound details within Ohio’s new College Credit Plus program (hereafter referred to as CCP) refers to the population eligible to take advantage of the program. Where the former PSEO program cast a net reaching mostly students in the latter portion of their high school experience, Ohio’s new CCP model opens this opportunity to any college-ready student in grades 7-12.

While students still need to verify college readiness through placement testing, college admission standards, or other criteria set forth by the institution, communication of this opportunity alone has increased the number of middle- and early- high school students seeking entrance into Ohio’s colleges to earn post-secondary credits while remaining in the K-12 system. For some of the state’s largest community colleges, this year’s College Credit Plus enrollment is akin to the number of students attending a small liberal arts college. Given the numbers and an expected increase over the next several years, this cohort has changed the landscape of many Ohio college campuses.

Given the community college access mission, diversity of class offerings, as well as low tuition costs and ease of transfer, community colleges are often desirable partners for school districts seeking to expand CCP opportunities for their students. However, as community colleges begin to see an increase in minor students attending classes, campus events, and utilizing services, college administrators struggle to find a balance between minor populations and other student cohorts also utilizing the institution to achieve educational and career goals.

As mentioned in previous articles within this column, community colleges’ doors swing wide open, often providing a second chance to individuals who carry a criminal background. As one may assume, this sub population of the community college profile includes those whose offenses were of sexual nature, many of whom are required to adhere to state sex offender registry laws. While attendance at a community college can be an accessible route to rebuilding one’s life after incarceration, co-enrollment with an increased population of minor students may present a conflict with one’s probation, parole, or a long-term sex offender registry requirement.

As the average age of those attending college, and more specifically, community colleges, begins to drop due to increased partnerships with K-12 education systems, campus administrators are faced with complex questions that, in many cases, challenge the access mission on which community colleges were originally built.

Perhaps the most glaring campus safety question facing administrators at open access colleges is how to integrate an increasingly younger population into a learning environment that currently includes registered sex offenders.

In July 2015, one Ohio two-year college restricted a previous offender’s utilization of on-campus housing, based on the college’s existing housing policy. Hocking College admitted the student and permitted his participation on the college’s football team, thus allowing the student to pursue his education, but with limitations (Community College Week, 2015).

While some colleges can bar sexual offenders from utilizing on-campus residential services, many other community colleges lack on-campus housing. Given the absence of this service, community colleges may find themselves without options for restricting interactions between sexual offenders and the general student population. This scenario can present challenges for community colleges that seek to fulfill the role of community educator, while balancing the safety and risks associated with supporting the educational needs of a diverse student body. Which services, if any, present the largest risks and therefore should be limited? How can colleges identify these areas and plan policies accordingly?

The Court of Public Opinion

As community colleges, once open to all, grapple with the ethical challenge to both educate and protect such a vast array of students, the focus has fallen on the offenses that are primarily sexual in nature. Many colleges have been asked to further examine their admission and monitoring stance on the sexual offender population, however, other groups with criminal background do not appear under the same scrutiny. Why, then, has this particular cohort of the restored citizen population been under close review?

As mentioned above, one can make the connection between the increased number of minors attending community colleges and concerns about the safety of the college environment. As K-12 partnerships expand to bring more middle- and high-school aged students into the community college classroom, these partnerships have nudged student affairs professionals to re-examine existing policies designed to ensure student safety. Likewise, parent groups, community stakeholders, and dually enrolled students also apply increased concern, thus challenging the openness of the community college’s doors.

The debate over sexual offender admission and enrollment restrictions runs parallel to public opinion surrounding sex offender registries, sentences, and the permanent “label” associated with this subgroup of previously incarcerated individuals. As stated by Pickett, Mancini, and Mears (2013), “with the possible exception of terrorists, sex offenders in the United States experience a greater degree of punishment and restriction than any other offender group. Members of the public overwhelmingly support “get tough” sex crime policies and display an intense hostility toward persons labeled ‘sex criminals’.” Given this pattern, it seems logical that campuses may experience unique pressure from the community regarding the issue of sex offenders within the college environment.

Pickett et al. (2013) outline models that seek to explain the public’s negative response to sexual offenders when compared to offenders of other crimes. One such model indicates a strong form of solidarity between the general public and victims of sexual crimes, leading to protection of possible victims regardless of extent. Likewise, the other two models outline a public opinion of sexual offenders as “monsters” and thus any actions unforgivable, as well as a perception that sex crimes are prevalent and thus require risk management. The article, however, also points out that further research is needed to identify whether or not public opinion is justified when connected to recidivism rates and the outcomes associated with various sex offender rehabilitation methods.

An Ethical Challenge

Given the status of current public opinion regarding the perceived threat of past sexual offenders, community colleges may struggle to respond to increased pressure to restrict enrollment while also advocating for a marginalized cohort of individuals who may benefit greatly from open access to education.

As open access institutions, community colleges offer opportunity to restored citizens, and are viewed by community partners as an education pathway for those exiting the criminal justice system. This mission presents ethical and moral challenges for colleges drafting policies that maintain open access while attempting to diminish the risk of sexual violence on and connected to the campus environment. Review and creation of such policies requires multiple perspectives and vantage points, including those represented by Legal Counsel, community stakeholders, student affairs, administration, and, of course, the student body voice. While restrictions and admission review policies have begun to take shape around this issue, the voice of law enforcement, community agencies, and registered sex offenders themselves has, presumably, yet to be heard.

As community colleges work to negotiate these concerns and craft responses to minimize risk to other students, additional ethical challenges often arise. While some colleges may seek to fully deny the most violent offenders admission, other students with lower registration status may still be admitted. Likewise, with a current focus on sexual offenders, previously incarcerated individuals whose crimes involved non-sexual violence, drug trafficking, or theft may be admitted without review. In these cases, as with many student cohorts pursuing degrees, student services staff and faculty will be presented with ethical challenges associated with the advisement and career planning process for those with criminal pasts.

This challenge, not unique to the open access environment, demands that staff, faculty, and administrators learn as much as they can about the individual goals, motivation, and personal story associated with nearly every student occupying a seat. As educators, we play a role in helping students to identify educational options and choices, while respectfully helping those with potentially limiting backgrounds to identify alternative routes to meaningful employment. This perspective is critical when developing policies that limit access for some students, but also when identifying other cohorts who can be granted admission but may be barred from certain career fields, academic programs, and internships due to criminal background. Likewise, administrators, Legal Counsel, and other student support teams may need to examine which components of the student experience, such as student life opportunities, intramural or organized athletics, and clubs can or should be restricted due to perceived risk. Data and research presented outside of higher education, such as recent work in the areas of sociology, criminology, psychology, and other disciplines, may need to be consulted in order to inform strategies that protect some students while restricting the access of others.

Conclusion

As with many issues facing higher education, and specifically, community colleges, strategies to bar admission to registered sex offenders presents moral, ethical, and legal implications. As stated above, public opinion, increased community support for higher education, and closer partnerships between K-12 and college campuses have brought concerns about student safety to the surface. Administrators faced with these decisions should be encouraged to reflect on the mission of the American community college, seek consultation with Legal Counsel, and maintain communication with community partners in order to support those who may be barred access to the institution.

In the spirit of the community college mission, which provides access for anyone to improve his or her living, contribution, or obtain employment, creating links for those who cannot attend will prove a commitment to serving our communities. If our campuses cannot support those with certain criminal backgrounds, it will be important to provide an alternative pathway to meaningful education, employment, and a livable wage. After all, this is the core value of campuses that truly serve their communities.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your personal stance on admitting sexual offenders to community colleges to pursue degrees and other educational experiences?
  2. Does your view shift when considering those with non-sexual criminal history? Why or why not?
  3. How can community colleges continue to offer open access to education while still maintaining the safety of minors who attend college classes through K-12 partnership programs?
  4. What do you believe is the role of a college and its administration as it relates to student safety? Does this change when considering minors versus the safety of others over the age of 18? Why or why not?

References

College Credit Plus FAQ (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2016, from https://www.ohiohighered.org/ccp/faqs Ohio college will allow participation but will bar man from living in dormitory. (2015). Community College Week, 28. Retrieved from http://npaper-wehaa.com/ccweek;see 2015/07/27;c-2566151

Pickett, J. T., Mancini, C., & Mears, D. P. (2013). Vulnerable victims, monstrous offenders, and unmanageable risk: Explaining public opinion on the social control of sex crime. Criminology, 51(3), 729-759.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Life Off-Campus: A Personal Reflection

Marisa Vernon, Cuyahoga Community College

I recently changed jobs, taking on more administrative responsibility and strategic leadership. My current position has brought me to another large community college only a few hours from the familiar campus where I learned to fully embrace and understand the role of the two-year college in our educational system.

In the three years I spent at Columbus State Community College, I learned how to truly lead others and also how to navigate the politics, processes, and strategies of a large urban community college.  Leading an advising office through the peaks and valleys of institutional change, I began to understand how to inspire others to focus on student needs, provide exceptional support to the campus community, and push others to dissect the student experience.

Though this professional experience has, undoubtedly, added a valuable layer to my administrative foundation, the most profound impact from my time in Columbus, Ohio, was not gained on campus. Rather, I now find myself most grateful for a personal challenge I decided to accept in order to connect even closer to the students I served.

This article takes a bit of a detour from my regular, less personal commentary on issues facing community colleges, though I am convinced we become better educators when we share interesting, rich experiences from an honest perspective.

Poverty and Education: The Beginning of a Passion

As a kid growing up, I shook things up a little bit. I was relatively reserved, though balanced with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experiences that had to have been utterly exhausting to two young parents. I asked questions often, and I cannot imagine most of them were easily answered or satisfied with a yes or a no.

Colleagues know my brain has not changed much, and now rather than exhausting my parents, it can at times exhaust me as a professional. A never-ending stream of intake, processing, and reflection means I rarely exit experiences without takeaway. Like many who work in two-year college environments, layers and layers of experiences have slowly stoked the social justice fire within. I carry it around often, and am blessed to have a career where open dialogue is not only appreciated, but encouraged.

I first came to the community college world after a seven year experience at an open-enrollment regional campus of a large University, which was a wonderful bridge. The two environments were similar in terms of access missions, retention challenges, and low tuition costs. I understood the student population, trends, and stigma associated with open access education, which supported my smooth transition into a community college culture. I happily settled into a nearby suburb, and got to work.

In an effort to meet my new colleagues and connect further with students, I joined a learning community, open to faculty, staff, and students, focused on diversity issues. The dialogue was richer than I had experienced in previous environments, and our group conversations often touched upon the great, unspoken factor linked to success in life: wealth. While I, perhaps intellectually, understood that wealth could facilitate choices, achievement, and further attainment, I had not fully connected its power in education until then.

Almost immediately after engaging in raw, uncensored dialogue through the campus learning community, I began to see differences in the student population that had initially seemed familiar. I no longer simply heard student stories about struggles related to transportation, lack of book money, childcare conflicts, and domestic struggles; rather, I really listened to the stories and tried to comprehend their impact on the students’ ability to complete a degree. Suddenly, the standard excuses I had heard from students for nearly a decade began to seem deeply individualized, intertwined, and complex. One barrier to success seemed to be tied to another, and untangling the web of challenges facing our campus’ urban population presented a daunting task.

My lens is that of a middle class, majority, heterosexual, graduate school educated professional. I could have left it at that, and tucked myself away into a pocket of the world that feels comfortable, safe, and familiar. I have, many times, felt as though I don’t belong in conversations about race, class, sexuality, or culture. During those moments, all internal alarms signal to run back to safety. But on many occasions while working at community colleges, I have ignored that internal alarm and challenged myself to understand how these forces may apply themselves to educational attainment.

Making the Move

As I began to interact with more students, hear their stories from my Academic Advisor supervisees, and engage in dialogue at the campus level, I felt a disconnect between work focus and my personal life. Daily, I immersed myself in developing strategies to increase attainment and success among first-generation, minority students from impoverished backgrounds. At the end of each day, I returned back to a comfortable suburb packed with dining and shopping options, two-parent families, and an esteemed school system. The gap between the two environments was pervasive and a bit unsettling, especially as I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges poverty presents to community college students.

After several years on the job, my husband and I decided to begin looking for a home to buy. We quickly realized many of the suburbs were financially out of reach given our preference for disposable income. I had become familiar with the area near the community college campus, an old neighborhood seeing its fair share of challenges. The area was exceptionally diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and income levels, with boarded up homes next to newly renovated ones. I knew many of the college’s students lived in the area, and was aware of the challenges as the neighborhood fought to find equilibrium.

We worked on an abandoned home for several months before moving in. And in the months to follow, I learned more about the issues facing the students with whom I worked than I could have ever imagined.

Experiencing Challenges Firsthand

While working with urban community college students in an academic advising capacity, safety, transportation, access to quality food, and a lack of social support are often described as barriers to success in education. These concepts often made me reflect on my own educational journey, which was relatively void of serious challenges and free of barriers. Looking back, I realize how simplistic my advice may have seemed to the students with whom I worked. While I logically knew students relied on a complicated bus system to access the community college, I did not fully understand this impact on course scheduling, the ability to engage while on campus, and the time invested in travel. I listened to students’ stories about their responsibility in caring for family members with chaotic lives, often prodding them to focus on themselves and their education. I could not understand why a student struggling financially would decline the student loans intended to help him or her obtain an education, or why another may jeopardize his or her financial future by maxing out Financial Aid each semester. I even sat in student affairs meetings and wondered whether or not the campus truly needed a food pantry, and why some students seemed to rely so heavily on the campus community to provide even more than just access to an education.

I did not realize how difficult these success barriers were to untangle until I lived in the same community, attempted to overcome the same barriers, and saw firsthand the lack of resources available to those who live in a deteriorated neighborhood.

As an avid runner, I felt trapped by my concerns about safety past dark. This simple unfulfilled ritual forced me to think about what a student walking home to the neighborhood from evening class may encounter. In addition, I found myself thinking about related issues, such as stress management, health, and overall wellness, and how these aspects of a student’s livelihood may be impacted simply by his or her address. Sure, an individual can make a conscious choice to select a different means to an end (in this case, outdoor exercise), but doing so requires additional steps, complications, and intrinsic motivation.

Similarly, I was immediately able to see why the area from which many of our students came had been deemed a “food desert”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” Save a few urban gardens and a recently added co-op, the nearest grocery stores required access via automobile or city bus. Even as a new member of the community, I could envision how, without reliable transportation, access to food could become a cumbersome chore to those already juggling roles as students, parents, caretakers, and employees.

This observation was exacerbated by a robust discussion among neighbors via an online forum. One individual posted a long rant about a national pizza chain that refused to deliver to her home based on her address. The issue sparked an ongoing debate about access to services, and how limited services may be for those who live in neighborhoods deemed “poor” or “unsafe.” While pizza delivery served as a trivial issue on the surface, the example was a simple display of the differences in convenience, commodities, and service available within less developed sections of American cities.

Previous to my move, I had been involved in several campus meetings focused on initiating a campus food pantry. As a student affairs administrator, I had always supported the idea, and joined active committees to push the idea forward. However, I can honestly say I did not fully understand how such a resource could alleviate stressors for our students until I placed myself directly in the same environment. While my experience was far different than my neighbors’ due to my earnings, even minimal exposure to a food desert was enough to show me how students may be struggling to meet basic needs while attending community college.

As I observed the neighborhood through a lens of privilege, I began to notice that the most profound factors were actually intangible and difficult to describe. Each year in my previous neighborhood, middle- to upper-class families proudly displayed banners in their front yards, boasting high school graduation and the name of the student’s destination college or university. Celebrations of success were not present on the blocks surrounding our new home, though I knew students attending the campus on which I worked lived behind those doors. Such intangibles, immeasurable details, are the differences that I continue to reflect upon even now that I have moved on to a new community college system.

These subtle social nuances between the “haves” and the “have nots” surely play a role in the resiliency, persistence, and motivation it takes to complete a college degree. While I am not a social science expert or researcher by trade, I can tell a deep shift in my approach to working with students who juggle multiple stressors on their way to a degree. Students who start off with few resources are far more likely to experience bumps in the road more frequently, are more fragile than their privileged peers, and perhaps experiencing greater stress than others will ever encounter.

The Take-Away

The social issues impacting our students are complex, and so are the lenses through which we view them. However, sitting back and looking through the lenses we were given has its limits. By pushing the limits of a comfort zone, we cannot help but learn and question in order to adapt. In turn, we are better educators, supporters, and guides for students who face challenges that may be different from those with which we have personal experience.

The return on pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is that we can no longer ignore large-scale social issues when we are close to them. When issues like food deserts, income gaps, access to quality education, and transportation serve as inconveniences in our own lives, we begin to take notice. For educators who appreciate the process of learning, choosing to be part of the solution means watching from the sidelines is no longer an option. It’s not a matter of settling for less; it is a matter of leaning into uncomfortable experiences knowing the return will help us be better, know more, and empathize more deeply.

As faculty, staff, and administrators, moving to a new neighborhood, worldwide travel, or additional education may not be feasible to all. However, small attempts to push our personal boundaries can help to chip away at the walls that often prevent us from supporting students in the best way possible.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some small ways you can learn more about what your students may be experiencing in their lives off-campus, and how can your institution address some of these issues?
  2. Reflecting upon your experience, have there been student success initiatives your college or university may have explored that you did not support? Looking back on these initiatives, can you view them with a different perspective?
  3. What are some of the invisible or visible privileges you have that may prevent you from fully understanding certain students’ experiences while in college?

Reference

A Look Inside Food Deserts. (2012, September 24). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/features/FoodDeserts/index.html

About the Author

Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Be our Guest: A Conflict Over Transient Student Services

Note: This article was written under Marisa’s previous role at Columbus State Community College. All institutional references are to Columbus State Community College.

Community college services remain busy throughout all three of the main semesters: Fall, Spring, and Summer. Due largely in part to a non-traditional population, accelerated degree programs, technical career fields, and alternative scheduling, two-year college students often attend classes across ten months of the year.

While the Summer peak remains high and often mirrors the enrollment activity at four-year colleges and universities, the demographics of a community college change slightly between May and August. Campuses begin to take on a more traditional feel as college students return back home from residential institutions and utilize the community college setting to get ahead or catch up over a long break.

Transients, as many colleges classify this particular cohort and enrollment pattern, represent a significant portion of many community college’s profile year round. During Summer 2015, our campus welcomed over 6,000 students in the Transient/Guest cohort, making up a significant percentage of the overall enrollment for the term. These students represent a wide variety of educational goals and profiles, coming to the community college from universities within the area and also those outside of the state. On several occasions the Advising team has even worked with students attending Ivy League institutions who are home for the summer seeking enrichment or completion of a general requirement.

In most cases, the local community college campus is an ideal destination to achieve such educational goals. A low cost of tuition, adherence to transfer module standards, and a wide variety of general purpose coursework creates an excellent environment in which to host guests. For the most part, the enrollment process lacks some of the barriers often found at more selective institutions. An open enrollment environment welcomes all into the classroom, and community colleges have grown accustomed to meeting the needs of perhaps the widest variety of individuals.

Given this perfect match, why might community college struggle to meet the needs of the Transient population? What are the challenges facing some community colleges as they attempt to increase enrollment through service to students in this cohort, and should community colleges offer the same support services to Transient students as native students?

These are just some of the questions facing many community college administrators as two-year campuses continue to embrace the innovative success, retention, and support initiatives commonly found within university systems. As community colleges grapple with movement from enrollment-based funding models to success and completion agendas, where does the Transient student population fit?

The Transient Student Dilemma

Guest students can easily be viewed as a source of tuition revenue by those managing enrollment at community colleges, however, intake processes designed for the general, degree-seeking population can present additional barriers to a temporary population. While community colleges have remained focus on access and open enrollment, admissions processes have evolved to maintain data integrity and promote student success. In an effort to better track student progress, provide proactive retention supports, and establish reliable data, some community colleges are beginning to explore mandatory transcript submission policies, academic credentialing related to Math and English proficiency, and widespread encouragement of standardized test completion. Likewise, as a response to success-driven funding changes, some community colleges turn focus to increased course pre-requisite requirements, concurrent enrollment pairings, and learning community structures.

While these initiatives and policies, in theory, support student learning, they can be viewed as barriers to visiting students who wish to simply complete a singular course to meet a requirement at his or her primary institution. If a guest student is required to submit additional transcripts, take placement tests outside of the desired content area, or attend mandatory Orientation programming in order to register, he or she may opt out of enrollment altogether. While the student is entitled to do so, these choices can impact a community college’s revenue and overall enrollment in the long-term.

This risk leaves community colleges to explore separate application, advising, and registration approaches for varied groups of students.  The open enrollment nature, coupled with a reliance on student self-reporting, presents a challenge in creating multiple and unique routes of entry.

This challenge extends beyond Admissions processes as well, as support units such as Advising, Tutoring, Financial Aid, and Counseling struggle to identify the best courses of action for both native and visiting students.

The fast-paced student services office I currently lead was faced with this conflict several summers ago. Faced with an increase in Transient/Guest student traffic within the Advising office, both native and guest students experienced high wait times during peak walk-in hours. The Advisors and I quickly realized Transient/Guest students were simply seeking transactional services such as permission to enter certain courses, quick pre-requisite reviews, and assistance with online registration procedures. This cohort of students, however, was mixed in with degree-seeking students in need of developmental advising, academic intervention discussions, career guidance, and extensive first semester assistance.

Stretched thin and overwhelmed with overall student traffic, our team began to develop strategies to serve Transient/Guest students differently and encourage simplified, online, transaction-based interactions. Through the introduction of an online registration form and pre-requisite authorization process, most guest students are now served at a distance, leaving additional advising capacity to manage the more extensive support needs of degree-seeking students at the institution.

This example demonstrates the challenge faced by many other community college enrollment departments. As community colleges commit to meeting nearly every educational need presented at the front door, colleges are forced to look at new ways to spread resources and, in some cases, diversify service structures.

With an increased focus on student success, however, does movement towards transactional services for guest students impact the student experience? What impact could this approach have on overall student success, and the college’s ability to attract and possibly retain the Transient/Guest student population?

An Enrollment Management Perspective

As with most other institutions, both two- and four-year, credential completion remains a central priority in student success within community colleges.

However, administrators focused on Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) often struggle to find a balance between open accessibility and supporting current students in their efforts towards degree completion. As guest students utilize the community college in an effort to fulfill home institution requirements, save on tuition costs, or fill in gaps between undergraduate and graduate programs, the community college environment struggles to prioritize these goals.

Due to the high proportion of first generation students attending community colleges, the college’s native population risks late registration behavior. Through direct work with students, I have observed this pattern on many occasions, as our students sometimes wait to register for the next term due to childcare considerations, lack of confidence in his/her ability to successfully complete current term coursework, financial constraints, or scheduling needs. As open registration progresses, savvier guest students from other colleges and universities begin to register for available sections. Unfortunately, hesitant community college students sometimes find themselves stuck without the courses they need in order to persist. Changing the late registration pattern requires communication and encouragement from student services offices such as Advising, Financial Aid, and specialized programs.

A 2013 review of California community colleges explored priority registration across 110 institutions and found that 93% of the institutions reviewed offered priority registration to continuing students. While some of the community colleges prioritized students by time at the college, others prioritized by the number of credit hours accumulated (Bahr, Gross, Slay, & Christensen, 2015).

While the study did not directly address colleges’ handling of Transient populations, this stratified registration strategy reflects a high priority on student credential completion. As a result (either intentional or unintentional), this type of approach postpones registration activity that could impede native students’ ability to persist within the system. This is just one example of methods community colleges may employ to strike a balance between meeting the needs of Transient and native student populations.

Bahr et al. (2015) acknowledge that registration priority has the potential to disadvantage students moving across multiple institutions to achieve educational goals. The authors encourage enrollment management officials at community colleges to explore partnerships between other institutions that allow students to retain priority as they move across systems. Such an approach could assist Transient students as this cohort attempts to secure seats in key community college classes, however, variances across partner institutions challenge this recommendation.

Recruiting Transient Students: What is Appropriate?

As mentioned earlier, Transient students can help community colleges fill empty seats, establish strong transferability agreements with other institutions, and offer a solution to students seeking flexible course options at a lower tuition rate. From a student success perspective, data at the institution in which I work has shown that the Transient student population successfully completes coursework at a higher percentage than other students within the College. In addition, students with home institutions withdraw from classes at a lower rate compared to others attending the college. While these students present service and support challenges to community colleges, they can also be perceived as assets in states that employ success-based funding for higher education.

But is it appropriate for community colleges to directly recruit a Transient population? After all, these students are enrolled in other institutions, presumably completing degrees at home colleges and universities. While the community college is well positioned to offer services and coursework to these individuals, should colleges actively seek their business?

In a recent interoffice conversation, several Advisors and I were discussing the “word of mouth” nature of our Transient enrollment patterns. Several local colleges and universities, as well as those further away from the state, are regularly represented in our summer guest student cohort. In some cases, the student’s Advisor may have recommended a summer class or two while home from a residential campus. Presumably, however, these colleges and universities would prefer to obtain revenue from additional coursework taken at their tuition rate.

The Transient population presents significant enrollment potential for many community colleges, though the unique existence of a home college or university complicates traditional recruitment efforts designed to increase overall enrollment. While active recruitment of this population on campuses would generally be considered unethical, community colleges may employ more passive strategies to incentivize students to take a course or two over a semester break, utilize the community college to “catch up” in degree programs, or fulfill general education requirements within a unique setting.

Given its representation in community college enrollment profiles, the Transient student population represents enrollment potential that cannot be ignored. How a college attempts to secure this enrollment, however, presents unique challenges to Admissions, Enrollment Management, and Marketing offices alike. Strategic and collaborative efforts between each of these departments can help a community college to attract a strong guest cohort, especially during summer terms when degree-seeking student enrollment may decline.

Unintended Consequences

Anecdotally, many Transient students appear to prefer quick, uncomplicated transactions with the community college. With home institutions fulfilling the role of support, guest students can utilize their existing support structures to fulfill in-depth academic advising, Financial Aid, or long-term planning needs. In these cases, the community college with which Transient students interact can be seen as a means to an end.

While some Transient students may prefer a transactional interaction with the community college, overly simplified processes can cause barriers for students later on. For example, community colleges that waive required documents or Admissions processes for guest students may find it challenging to work with students if and when their educational goals change. In addition, bypassing pre-requisite coursework in an effort to abridge registration barriers may lead to advising challenges if the student decides to remain at the college and pursue an academic program. For this reason, simplified efforts designed to cater to the Transient population may need to be weighed against potential unintended consequences. Without communication, proper control over student records, and a strategic method of bridging a Transient student into an academic program (if desired), colleges may find gaps in meeting the long-term needs of this student population.

Conclusion

Students utilizing multiple institutions to meet degree requirements is not a new phenomenon, and this enrollment trend may in fact increase as students wish to save tuition dollars, accelerated completion, control student loan debt, or diversify their college experience. Community colleges are well-positioned to serve the needs of this student populations through ease of access, diverse course offerings, and open enrollment structures.

Faced with a diverse range of students’ educational goals, community college student services and enrollment management professionals continue to evolve processes, service models, and policies to serve the needs of many. Capitalizing on existing resources, community colleges stretch capacity to defy the “one size fits all” approach to student support and services. Transient students represent a significant portion of a community college’s enrollment, and the management of resources surrounding this population continues to prompt discussion moving forward. The Transient student population provides not only challenges, but unique opportunities to community colleges seeking to increase enrollment in the coming years.

Discussion Questions

  1. In your opinion, should Transient/ Guest students receive the same services and attention as native students? Why or why not?
  2. What implications could differences in services and processes have on student success, retention, and persistence? Might differentiated services prevent prospective students from fully transferring to the institution to pursue degrees?

Reference

Bahr, P. R., Gross, J. L., Slay, K. E., & Christensen, R. D. (2015). First in Line: Student Registration Priority in Community Colleges. Educational Policy, 29(2), 342-374. doi:10.1177/0895904813492381

About the Author

Upon completion of this article, Marisa Vernon has transitioned to a new role as Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

An Ode to the Community College Academic Advisor

Higher education and student affairs is a broad field where individuals with a variety of skill sets can contribute to the overall success of an institution. Working with students can be technical, navigating between red tape, periods of policy reform, and crunching numbers related to enrollment, tuition, and complex curricular changes. Many corners of the field may require highly developed interpersonal skills, empathy, motivation, and an understanding of student development theory. The ability to leverage a bureaucratic environment, establish positive relationships in intense political cultures, and deliver exceptional service in high-stress situations are also desirable skill sets for professionals working in higher education settings.

While many professionals can lean into limited facets of this work, the Academic Advising office is often the intersection of them all. Within those four walls, a team of professionals switches between high-level, low-level, analytical and soft skills day in and day out.

Advising in the Community College

In many ways, community college Academic Advisors are the rock stars of higher education, as those most successful in impacting students are constantly striking a balance between technical knowledge and compassionate guidance. Perhaps more frequently than in other areas of an institution, they often shoulder the institution’s enrollment and retention pressures, while still maintaining a commitment to the best interests of students. An Advisor’s work often involves helping students make sense of overly complex curricular pathways, aligning majors to ever-changing workforce opportunities, identifying bottlenecks in the student experience, and sometimes guiding students away from their dreams.

This is especially true in community college settings where the “other duties as assigned” line in the job description often delivers more than meets the eye.

Recently, I was selected to oversee the development and implementation of our College’s One-Stop center, which will join together high-volume student service areas like Admissions, Records and Registration, and Financial Aid. As a result of this assignment, a great deal of my time recently has been spent facilitating conversations with departments across the Enrollment Management and Student Services division. While many of the conversations focused on the scope, training, and transactions within the center, my meeting with the Advising team included high-level concerns about the support structures in place after the student completes the enrollment processes within the center. As one Advisor mentioned, without the oversight of Residence Life (infrequently found at community colleges), Academic Advisors often fulfill the role of caretaker, mentor, and guide throughout the entire student experience. This support, as she pointed out, is critical as the College streamlines its transactional services.

Her point has stuck with me, and has caused me to see the Advisor role differently within the context of a community college setting. As a former Academic Advisor myself, and now an administrator providing leadership to an Advising unit, I have always understood the profound impact quality academic advising can have on student success. I have even naturally expanded my advising philosophy to fit into the community college setting, though without much reflection. In the absence of Residence Life and other services provided by four-year institutions, community college Advisors are often responsible for building a similar safety net around the students they serve.

When I take a step back and look at the Advising department I currently lead, I can see the swelling of Advisor responsibilities within our setting. While providing guidance related to curriculum makes up a large portion of the Advisor role, individuals are also expected to help a largely first-generation population understand what it means to be a college student. They look into the eyes of students who have turned to our college as their last hope to obtain an education and improve their lives, and help them find a motivational spark. They are often responsible for telling students they can no longer return to the institution due to their low grades, or that the career an individual has been trying to build may no longer be an option due to a competitive admission process.

While these discussions are commonplace in any academic advising setting, they are often complicated by the “last option” nature of a community college opportunity. Early in my career, while working at a semi-selective four-year institution, I was able to facilitate these conversations with students knowing they would leave my office with other options. The local regional campus or community college would welcome the students who left our university and provide them another chance at an education. While still impacting me as an Advisor, these discussions seemed easier when an alternate option lie within reach.

Institutional completion agendas and retention plans often challenge Advisors to think critically about alternative pathways available to struggling students. Where a student’s plan to transfer to a four-year college begins to crumble, an Associate of Applied Science degree may present a viable option for career options. A developmental education student’s bumpy path may present an opportunity for a certificate on which a degree can be built later on. Countless articulation agreements can open doors that may be the perfect for some students, but a recipe for disaster for others. When community colleges fail to foster success in students’ lives, the doors for future education begin to close. The pressure to retain students and ensure they leave with a credential is profound within this type of setting.

Community college advising requires an exceptionally high level of compassion, coupled with a whole lot of grit. As underprepared students embark on their educational journeys, the learning curve can be steep, the stakes high. When barriers such as grade point average, past criminal history, lack of family support, and financial strain appear, they often appear in a profound way for a community college student. Without a complete understanding of the resources available to them, the Advising office often becomes the primary location of refuge. Students remember the person who assisted them at the front door, and equate college Advisors to the guidance counselors who may have assisted in the distant past.

Good Advisors dissect the student experience for clues, and can skillfully deconstruct a student’s struggles or triumphs and weave together carefully tailored plans of action. The Advisor brain balances active listening while simultaneously connecting the story to appropriate campus resources, weighing options, and thinking within the context of the college’s complex policies and curriculum. For the student, the Advisor is an educational equivalent of Grand Central Station; he or she is the sounding board where all the facets of an overwhelming college experience intersect and branch out.

Breaking the Advising Burnout Cycle

Given the heavy lifting involved in academic advising at a community college, one of my biggest challenges is keeping morale high and motivation strong among the Advisors I supervise. Their days are often repetitive, structured, and demanding. Not surprisingly, a college’s priorities and focus on outputs like enrollment, retention, and persistence reinforce the belief that Advisors should simply see as many students as possible. As a result, the field has become known by many as a high burnout area within many Student Affairs divisions. Keeping advising teams motivated requires a commitment to diversification of job tasks, which is often counterintuitive to the idea that Advisors should be ready at all times should a student walk in the door.

In my experiences both as an Advisor and an administrator in this student services area, I have found that breaking down the walls around advising helps to lessen workload, form partnerships, and increase visibility on campus. During low student traffic periods in my current office, Advisors can often be found staffing an outdoor table or approaching students about their plans for attending next semester. These interactions break the cardinal rule regarding Advisor coverage by taking Advisors out of the office. However, this has not only helped students connect with Advisors, but helped the team to shake up their routine and feel more connected to the campus community. Likewise, these outreach efforts are usually followed by a surge in student traffic as individuals who conversed with Advisors in a casual setting often stop by to continue the dialogue or utilize the department for additional support. A proactive and targeted stroll around campus can almost always reach more students than a team of Advisors waiting for students to walk through the door. As an administrator, I just needed to think differently about what an advising team can do, and redefine the expectations surrounding how we connect with our students.

By nature, many Advisors are lifelong learners who crave not only information but also a clear understanding of how systems, processes, and curricula impact the way students move throughout institutions. They are often the ultimate student advocates in the community college setting, and show keen awareness about barriers, bottlenecks, and complexities that create stumbling blocks for students. Because of this, advising departments rely heavily on strong partnerships and open flows of communication surrounding processes at the college. For example, our team has established a mutually beneficial relationship with our campus Financial Aid department. This partnership has created areas for cross-training among both teams, as well as helped Academic Advisors contextualize how student situations can have both academic and financial consequences. A strong understanding of Financial Aid requirements regarding completion and progress frames a more holistic approach when working with students, and helps Advisors provide guidance from a variety of perspectives.

As mentioned early on, Advisors draw upon a large knowledge base in order to respond to the needs of each individual student while maintaining an understanding of overall student behavior patterns. While any Advisor training program should include a heavy amount of informational material, the introduction of related content can enrich the required knowledge base as well. For example, advising team staff meetings can include conversations about diversity, poverty, unemployment, religion, cultural competency, counseling, workforce trends, safety…the list goes on. Nearly any topic relating to human behavior can add depth and dimension to an Advisor’s toolkit if a culture of learning is established early on among an advising team. This steady stream of information, training, and learning continually refreshes the work of an Advisor, and provides a variety of lenses through which to view individual student situations and the college experience.

While advising remains a high burnout area within many college settings, the field of community college Advising provides an excellent training ground from which other experiences can take root. Few other areas within student services foster such a broad foundation and complex understanding of the college’s inner workings, and an Advisor is likely to bring this wealth of expertise to other levels or areas of the institution.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you read this article from the vantage point of an Advisor, supervisor, faculty member, or professional from an area outside of academic advising, I hope that you can now see the role of the Academic Advisor with renewed appreciation – especially within the community college setting. These teams build safety nets around students and think on their feet to help students navigate the complexities of the college environment. They are open to partnering with you, other colleagues, and can serve as dedicated advocates for change within an institution. Advisors see what others may not when it comes to student barriers, and witness the student experience, good and bad, firsthand. With them, they carry an astounding amount of knowledge, talent, and problem-solving abilities.

Perhaps I am biased given my experiences earning my professional stripes through academic advising. However, I owe it to those with whom I share this unique perspective to give the field a shout out and highlight who I believe to be the rock stars of higher education. I hope that you will pass this shout out along the next time you pass a frazzled Advisor in the hallway, send a stressed out student to the advising office when other referral options don’t seem quite right, or pass by a long queue of students just before the start of the semester. Behind these interactions are your college’s unsung heroes who carry a unique mix of information and care in an effort to help students find their way.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the perception of academic advising at your campus? How are Advisors viewed by various members of the campus community, such as high-level administrators, faculty, students, and staff?
  2. From your vantage point, what should be the role of a community college Academic Advisor?
  3. Academic Advisors are often challenged to improve the college’s retention rates, predict success barriers, and improve enrollment numbers. Do you think Advisors should be at the center of these initiatives, and what other areas from within the community college can advising centers partner to meet these demands?

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director in the Center for Advising, Support and Exploration at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and serves as the project co-manager for the College’s intergrated student services initiative. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Risk and Reward: How Financial Decisions Impact Community College Populations

Image of Marisa Vernon

Risk and Reward: How Financial Decisions Impact Community College Populations

Marisa Vernon, Lauren Merante, Stephanie Pfeifer, Beth Stanley
Columbus State Community College

Introduction

The landscape of financial management within the context of higher education is continually evolving as a result of tuition increases and changing federal regulations.  As an example, according to the College Board, the tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions increased by 2.9% for the 2013-14 school year, following a 4.5% jump the year before (Buschman Vasel, 2014).  Financial aid and student indebtedness continues to be a prominent part of conversation in the political realm as well.  Higher education issues do not often figure prominently in campaign advertisements.  But there are some indications that it may be getting some greater play during this cycle (Stratford, 2014).

It is vital that students have a good understanding of what it means to both apply for and accept financial aid as they begin their college careers.  Jason Comfort, age 23, graduated from Michigan State in 2013 with a degree in Civil Engineering and is living back at home.  He is now working a steady, full-time job, but with $160,000 in student loans. He reports, “My student-loan debt is enormous; I can’t make it happen.  I had no idea when I was applying to college how this was going to impact my future.  I feel like I am being left behind as all my friends move out on their own” (Buschman Vasel, 2014).

Accepting financial aid does not have the tangible feel of a transaction the way the acceptance of a product does when completing a purchase at a store, or even online.  Unlike some retail purchases, the financial aid consumer is making an agreement to purchase a service rather than a good.  Students are receiving an education in return for their money, which is a very valuable asset.  However, such an asset or credential differs in that it might not reap full benefits immediately.  In order to fully value this type of investment, students must understand that the education received equates to an increased skill level, and therefore, a heightened sense of employability and the quest to become more marketable.

As first-generation, low-income students enter today’s community colleges, student affairs professionals from areas such as orientation, financial aid, academic advising, and career counseling are charged with not only helping students to succeed academically, but fully understanding the financial decisions supporting their educational pursuits.

Short- and Long-Term Mindsets

Long-term versus short-term planning becomes a factor when students begin to make educational decisions, as degree completion and wise usage of funds are key.  While attaining knowledge along the way is valuable, it is important that the student completes the journey as well. All too often, we sadly see students start on their developmental education, or even general education, requirements and stop out before completion of a certificate, degree or other credential.  While students might have created a foundation for themselves, they may have very well spent funds towards classes that are not going to contribute to the original goal of becoming more marketable.

Extending beyond the completion of the FAFSA, low-income students often encounter significant hurdles in reconciling the need to further education with the intent of more secure employment and the immediate need to generate funds to address current financial needs.  It is the unfortunate reality that even with financial aid awards, the average financial gap between award and need for a low-income student is $5,277 (The Institute for College Access & Success, 2009).

With such outstanding need, there is little option for low-income students to forego work.  Despite on-campus federal work-study positions, opportunities in this category are limited on community college campuses, leaving many students seeking outside employment.  Grappling with these difficult choices, full-time enrollment is often not a viable option, leaving many students attending part-time at best, starting and stopping prior to reaching degree completion.

As student affairs professionals, we often witness students employing short-term strategies rather than focusing on the long-term return on investment education can provide.  For example, students may choose to utilize available funding for living and other non-academic related expenses, though fail to successfully complete classes.  This strategy can present both academic and financial implications that can be harmful to their forward progress, as discussed later in this article.

Often, if students focus too intently on immediate financial need, and they are not thinking long-term, student loan balances and the cost of additional semesters can balloon.  Students can be alarmed by the debt they have taken on, especially if they have not drawn a realistic picture related to their expected income and the ratio of their income to debt payments.

According to Stratford and Fain (2014), some 2.6 million federal loan borrowers across the country are in default on their loans, and another 2.87 million borrowers are behind on their payments.  Of these borrowers, community colleges and for-profits see the highest rates of default among their borrowers.  Cheng, Freeman, and Leopold (2013) suggest student-friendly approaches to net price calculators (NPCs) and financial aid award letters, which can make an enormous difference in helping students and families understand college costs and their options for meeting them at all stages of the process, and could lessen the number of students who default on their student loans.

Understanding Financial Aid Eligibility Requirements

The financial aid process, which consists of many factors, can often be confusing to students.  Of the numerous eligibility requirements to which a student must adhere in order to be awarded federal financial aid, one topic in particular may be fairly abstruse.

Students that receive federal aid funds to pay for tuition, fees and books are monitored through a process known as Standards of Academic Progress (SAP).  Every institution must have these standards set in place, and institutions normally generate reports either at the end of each semester or annually.  This process ensures federal aid receiving students are meeting certain grades and completion rates for their classes.  SAP standards are based on formulas that focus on percentages rather than exact credit hour requirements.  Materials designed to guide financial aid professionals explain as follows: “Checking a student’s pace of completion allows for variations of enrollment status since you look at the percentage of classes successfully completed rather than the number” (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).  Students who fail, withdraw, or drop their classes are particularly at risk of losing federal aid eligibility for the subsequent semester.

SAP standards include a qualitative as well as a quantitative component.  For the qualitative component, one law specifies that by the end of the second academic year, regardless of how many credits the student has accrued, the student must have a C average or its equivalent or have an academic standing consistent with the requirement for graduation from the program.  For the quantitative component, an institution must set a maximum time frame in which a student is expected to complete the program.  For an undergraduate program, the time frame cannot exceed 150% of the published length of the program measured in academic years or terms, credit hours attempted, or clock hours completed, as determined by the institution (Code of Federal Regulations 668.34 SAP).

For students that are low-income, first-generation, or of color, these standards of academic progress can be especially impactful.  Community college students often face significant financial and socioeconomic constraints. In many cases, first generation college students  may have little external support when working through the financial aid process, leading to confusion about the options available to them. In addition, students may also come from families who speak languages other than English at home or from cultures outside the United States with different education systems.

Goldrick-Rab (2013) argues that with a far greater number of students entering higher education without the support of college-educated parents, facing more significant constraints and higher costs, an effective financial aid office must do more than distribute financial aid and apply rules and regulations.  It is the shared responsibility of the college as a whole to make sure these students understand the rules and regulations of the financial aid process that could ultimately affect whether or not the student registers for class the following semester.

As college professionals, it is important to educate students facing financial restrictions of what actions to take to increase their grades.  It is of paramount importance that students recognize potential repercussions of their actions when it comes to dropping, failing and withdrawing from their classes and the disbursement of their financial aid.  Without the help of a professional, a student might make the wrong choice of taking too many or too few classes.  These decisions could academically jeopardize the student even more, or could impact the amount of grant/loan money received.  For example, a student withdraws from their classes for the semester in hopes to salvage their grade point average, but now faces an academic restriction for not meeting satisfactory academic progress for the semester.  Even though the student withdrew, the financial aid office looks at credit hours attempted versus credit hours completed.  Occasionally, unbeknownst to the student, they will need to provide evidence of mitigating circumstances to explain the withdrawal from those classes.

A concern regarding the 150% completion rate rule arises when students choose to take classes outside their major.  As practitioners, we tend to see this happen when a student is looking to receive full financial aid money, needing full-time status, but has only been advised to take certain classes.  While taking classes outside their major seemed relatively profitable initially, sooner or later students may run into the problem of exhausting their available financial aid funds because too many classes were taken outside of their major.  In order to continue receiving federal financial aid, students must complete their first associate degree or certificate program within 150% of the published length of the program, as measured by credit hours attempted.  Once a student reaches the 150% maximum time frame limit, federal financial aid eligibility will be terminated (Columbus State Community College, 2013).  It is important to note that this policy is not just limited to associate degrees.

In addition to adhering to the satisfactory academic policies of an institution, a student is responsible for the regular attendance of classes.  Federal regulations are in place stating that attendance data must be regularly collected, and faculty members are now required to take attendance on each day the class meets.  Institutions that are required to take attendance are expected to have a procedure in place for routinely monitoring attendance records to immediately identify when a student withdraws (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).  Again, for students who already face many obstacles, this is just another topic of which to be cognizant.

How Community Colleges Are Helping

Increasingly, community colleges have begun to promote responsible borrowing and timely degree completion, as well as to help students understand eligibility requirements related to federal financial aid.  However, shifting the mindset from short- to long-term thinking is often difficult to attain among first-generation, low-income populations.  Without exposure to family members, friends, and mentors for whom education has returned an investment, students may struggle to see how today’s financial sacrifice can promote future security.

In many instances, community colleges are challenged to anticipate the needs of prospective students before they even enroll.  One strategy includes partnering with local school districts and companies to forge both academic and career partnerships.  These pathway programs provide many low-income students an opportunity to earn free college credit prior to graduating from high school.  As many as seven percent of all community college students are currently under the age of 18 and earning college credit in dual-enrollment programs while still enrolled in high school (Mullin, 2012).  Through community college partnerships with major corporations, such as the Honda Corporation, high achieving students are introduced to co-op educational opportunities prior to high school graduation.  These programs offer low-income students the opportunity to attend college via scholarship, but offer highly sought after job security upon graduation.  These tangible results help reinforce the idea that an investment in education can lead to tangible long-term goal attainment.

Studies have also shown that a lack of financial understanding represents a significant problem among low-income, first-generation students’ completion of the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Additionally, a 2005 Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance study indicated that invasive questions often confuse families, leading to a general aversion to completing the form.  With these statistics in mind, FAFSA workshops offered by community colleges provide a guided environment in which students can complete the form with the assistance of a college employee.  These sessions not only provide reassurance to the student, but also allow an opportunity for students to learn and understand eligibility requirements and deadlines at an earlier juncture.

Recognizing the need to fill the gap between financial aid and the cost of attendance, Columbus State Community College has partnered with Ohio Benefit Bank to provide training to staff and student advocates.  Once trained and certified by Ohio Benefit Bank, student advocates are able to begin the process of enrolling qualified students in public aid programs, assist in obtaining free tax completion waivers, utilities assistance, and other types of assistance to ease the gap. These services external to the college help to ease the burden while students endure a short-term financial sacrifice to obtain an education.

Even in combination with public assistance, the general need to work while enrolled in courses leaves many low-income students enrolled on a part-time basis, able to dedicate less time to studying. Mortenson’s (2011) study analyzing the American Time Use Survey found that students aged 18 to 24 in the lowest income bracket dedicated only twenty-four to thirty-six minutes each day to homework or scholarly activity.  These figures represent a drastic difference from the study time of students in much higher income brackets.  Such little time spent towards studying could potentially lead to slower completion rates, which conflict with current legislation focused on timely completion of two-year degree programs, now calculated in the Standards of Satisfactory Academic Progress.

Achieving a balance between satisfactory and timely completion of a degree and the financial needs of the student presents yet another challenge.  Various objectives are utilized at Columbus State Community College in an effort to present well-rounded assistance beginning with flexible scheduling options.  By offering classes in more accessible mediums (hybrid and web) combined with evening, weekend and term in-class options, working students have the availability to schedule courses around work schedules instead of choosing between furthering their education and earning an income.  Furthermore, anticipating student difficulty in a variety of content areas can be addressed through no-cost Blueprint Student Success Workshops, offering practical advice on topics pertinent to student needs.

Despite the fact that as many as 62 percent of these students will not attend courses in consecutive semesters, often needing to “stop-out,” 55 percent of students earn a career and technical credential or degree, while eight percent return to complete a bachelor’s degree at a later date (American Association of Community Colleges, 2011).  Through the utilization of transfer agreements with partner institutions known as the Preferred Pathway, students are presented with a clearly organized roadmap, leading from the associate degree through completion of the bachelor’s degree.  Combined with state agreements, such as the Ohio Transfer Module, students can more easily map the best pathway to complete both an associate and bachelor’s degree in a personalized and concise manner.

Through the use of personalized approaches, community colleges can not only achieve the standard of satisfactory academic completion, but also provide a comprehensive approach that is truly reflective of the community and the needs of the student population.

Discussion Questions

1. What do you see as the financial advantages of beginning at a community college? Are there any disadvantages? Why or why not?

2. In your experience working with students, have you noticed variations in attitudes towards student loan debt among diverse socioeconomic groups?

3. What is a college’s obligation, role, and scope related to educating students on financial literacy?

References

Buschman Vasel, K. (2014, February 5). Why students have no idea how much college costs. Fox Business. Retrieved from http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2014/02/05/why-students-have…

Cheng ,D., Freeman, H., & Leopold, D. (2013, November 23). Helping students make cents of college cost, financial aid and net price. National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Retrieved from http://www.nasfaa.org/advocacy/perspectives/articles/Helping_Students_Ma…

Columbus State Community College. (2013). High finance: A guide to financing your education at Columbus State Community College. Retrieved from http://www.cscc.edu/services/financial-aid/pdf/HIGH.Finance1314.pdf

Goldrick-Rab, S. (2013, September 21). Rethinking financial aid’s role in student retention. The education optimists. Retrieved from http://eduoptimists.blogspot.com/2013/09/rethinking-financial-aids-role-…

The Institute for College Access & Success. (2009). Quick facts about financial aid and community colleges, 2007-08. Retrieved from http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/cc_fact_sheet.pdf

Mortenson, T. (2011) Time use of full-time college students ages 18 to 24 years 2003 to 2009. Postsecondary Education Opportunity. Retrieved from http://www.postsecondary.org/last12/223_111pg1_16.pdf

Mullin, C. M. (2012). It’s a matter of time: Low-income students and community colleges. American Association of Community Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Briefs/Pages/pb04162012.aspx

Stratford, M. (2014, October 21). Student loans and political ads. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/21/democrats-tout-student-lo…

Stratford, M., & Fain, P. (2014, September 25). Default rates dip (slightly). Inside Higher Ed, Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/09/25/default-rate-federal-loan…

U.S. Department of Education. (2013). Federal student aid handbook, 2013–2014. Washington, DC: Information for Financial Aid Professionals. Retrieved from http://ifap.ed.gov/ifap/byAwardYear.jsp?type=fsahandbook&awardyear=2013-…

About the Authors

Lauren Merante joined Columbus State Community College in 2011 after relocating from New York.  She has nine years of higher education experience including admissions, institutional research, and academic advising.  Her most recent position is as an Advisor in the Financial Aid department at Columbus State Community College.

Beth Stanley serves as an Academic Advisor at Columbus State Community College, where she has the opportunity to connect with a diverse student population and utilize her skills to assist students in achieving their goals. Beth has been working in higher education for nine years and one of her main areas of passion is around financial literacy and money management for students. Before coming to Columbus State, Beth worked in Housing and Residence Life at Ohio Dominican University.

Stephanie Pfeifer serves as an Academic Advisor in the Center for Advising, Support and Exploration at Columbus State Community College in Columbus Ohio. Stephanie has four years of higher education experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in new student enrollment and transfer programming. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she worked with the University of Toledo in the Department of History and Athletics.

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director in the Center for Advising, Support and Exploration at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and serves as the project co-manager for the College’s intergrated student services initiative. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

General Education Requirements in Technical Degree Programs: Do They Close or Open Doors?

Marisa Vernon, Columbus State Community College

Community colleges seek to provide education pathways to the masses, with missions focused on access. Given this focus, American community colleges have always served as the most natural home for technical education programs designed to provide occupational training. During the community college growth period in the 1950s, popular programs included automotive technology, skilled trades, book keeping, and construction.

Today’s community colleges remain committed to workforce needs and training students who select to pursue practical education over a liberal arts experience. Generally resulting in a certificate or associate degree credential, such programs provide a direct route to highly skilled career opportunities. While many community colleges have established articulation or completion agreements with area universities, applied associate degree programs essentially “flip” the traditional pathway to a bachelors degree by frontloading applied training coursework. This model attracts many students to community colleges. However, as community colleges seek to increase academic rigor, technical certificate and associate degree programs are often outliers in the discussion. Can a community college offer skill training programs without holding students to minimum standards in English composition, reading, and mathematics? Do students pursuing technical programs need the same general education foundation as their peers who utilize the community college to complete arts and sciences degrees?

Perhaps the most valuable and yet contradicting value expressed by community college missions is the lack of a one size fits all approach. This approach to education has helped community colleges to fit a niche in the American higher education marketplace and to respond quickly to gaps in the regional and national workforce. By offering both liberal arts and technical coursework, the community college can welcome students with any number of educational goals. Without an awareness of these two concurrent missions, however, community colleges can easily deter students from certain programs and thus suffer a negative impact to enrollment. Consider, for example, the implication of a minimum reading level on a program designed to cater to applied learners (such as automotive technology, welding, or other skilled trades). These programs offer excellent career pathways for individuals seeking immediate employability and a specialized skillset. They also fill a gap within the American workforce as more individuals enroll in universities and obtain a more general educational foundation.

While several career development theories are widely referenced in student affairs and workforce development discussions, most theories detail a subset of the population that possesses strong physical, applied, and kinesthetic preferences. While the K-12 classroom may not cater to these preferences, technical degree programs offer a learning environment where individuals who prefer applied learning can thrive and obtain valuable career skills that are needed within our society. Some areas of general or liberal education can be perceived as disconnected to a student who is pursuing technical training, and thus may even be seen as a barrier to career preparation.

The Pressure to Articulate

While many Americans immediately associate community colleges with technical training, some states have begun to hold all state institutions to the same level of accountability, or grouped them together in the public debate on degree completion. With much of the focus on creating a more educated workforce, the bar continues to rise as states engage in an education arms race. Community colleges are under pressure to create completion agreements with universities, and to not only train employable graduates but to facilitate their eventual transfer as well. With an increased focus on bachelor degree attainment, applied technical degree programs are faced with the challenge of managing enrollment while still folding in the general education coursework that prepares a student for further education later on.

In the early 1980s, three distinct degrees were established among American community colleges. This determination, led by the American Association of Community Colleges, ultimately created the Associate of Arts and Sciences degrees which were designed to create pathways to four-year degree completion, and the Associate of Applied Science which was intended to support vocational training. This distinction still exists at most community colleges almost thirty years later, and serves as the most basic filtering systems for providing students with education options that best fit their academic ability. However, state achievement goals and a changing workforce have created gray areas between these seemingly simplistic degree options. While the Associate of Applied Science degree focuses on technical training, additional general education requirements have begun to pile up in the degree plans (Chase, 2011).

Even with these efforts, however, Chase (2011) finds that only about half of a technical program’s credits transfer to four-year universities. Of the credits accepted by universities, technical credits are generally not accepted outside of specific and identified articulation agreements. Students are often set back by this upon entering the university, and many need to begin at the first-year level even after earning an associates’ degree. While the general education courses in the technical degree help students who transfer, many students are still held back at their future universities due to the low number of credits accepted anyhow. Is this system truly promoting degree completion, or is it creating barriers for students who seek immediate and applied workforce training?

While general education coursework has certainly elevated the academic level of technical and applied degree programs, one unintended consequence is the impact on students beginning in developmental education levels. Such developmental reading, writing and math sequences require underprepared students to maintain high levels of motivation in order to persist towards the vocational coursework they desire to take. Without support, a clear career goal in mind, and a healthy dose of willpower, many students will exit the community college system before discovering the programs that facilitate the hands-on and applied coursework they desire.

The debate over entry points to technical education coursework is a delicate one that includes the voices of many unique stakeholders. While college administrators seek to improve the academic success of the student body, many technical program faculty are passionate about keeping the doors to their programs open to all. Still another stakeholder group among faculty may argue the need for basic reading, writing, and math competency in fields such as automotive technology, skilled trades, photography, and the like. State and national government entities also enter the debate as pressure to both fill workforce needs and promote degree attainment collide. These voices and competing priorities all add additional depth to this discussion.

Impact of Additional Courses on Motivation

ACT (2012) reports that roughly half of new students leave community colleges prior to the completion of the first year. Bers and Schuetz (2014) sought to dig beneath this rate to determine the reasons why so many students stop out while attending community colleges, and revealed several factors. While their research outlined known reasons such as financial constraints, heavy external responsibilities, and transferring prior to degree, the writers also addressed reasons that pertained specifically to frustration with institutional requirements and structure. Community colleges enroll high percentages of first-generation students who enter the college seeking pathways to specific careers. As Bers and Schuetz (2014) indicate, many students are not aware of how their credits will apply to credentials, the benefit of general or preparatory coursework, and the requirements of specialized degree programs. External demands such as family responsibilities, work, or finances also compile and create a sense of skepticism among students with regards to taking classes that are perceived as “extra”. As the authors indicate, community college students, often under pressure, want to avoid wasting time, money, or effort on extra steps to their career goals.

This mentality, while not necessarily found among all community college students, does help administrators and faculty members understand why general or developmental education foundation coursework can quickly deflate individuals seeking vocational or applied science credentials.

The Math Barrier

For nearly every first-year community college student, one of the first steps in the enrollment process includes a placement process by which Advisors determine reading, writing, and math starting points. While developmental reading and writing placements can often delay a student’s entrance into technical program coursework, mathematics remediation creates perhaps the largest barrier to degree completion.

Two-thirds of students entering community college students require developmental education in the area of mathematics, and the majority of these students do not achieve college-level math at any point in their college experience. While many community colleges offer certificates and technical degrees that do not require high levels of math proficiency, Bahr (2012) finds that struggling students do not necessarily shift their efforts to these programs before simply stopping out all together, and that the large majority will exit the institution without earning any credential.

Math continues to prevent many community college students from earning degrees. While many colleges have employed strategies to support students through developmental math levels, the average community college student spends about three to five semesters working through developmental math sequences (Bahr, 2012). Depending on pre-admission criteria or course pre-requisites, many Associate of Applied Science degree-seekers may not receive exposure to his or her field of study until several semesters into his or her community college experience. This gap, while enhancing the technical degree with general education coursework, can present a barrier to a first-generation student who is eager to earn an employable and applied credential.

Employable Certificates

Many community colleges have begun to develop workforce certificates that either prepare students for licensing exams or lead to specialized, entry-level technical work. The certificate programs are designed to offer alternative routes to students who choose not to pursue an associates’ degree, or, ideally, can be used as an entry point to specific careers. In addition, such certificates offer another credential alternative to students struggling through developmental or general education coursework, but who have the skills necessary to succeed in technical coursework.

While many applied certificates take only a few courses to complete, these training programs are in fact seen as valuable to employers, according to Dadgar and Weiss (2012). Many community colleges, however, struggle to both create and recruit students to certificate programs, as students often cannot utilize some forms of financial aid to pursue this credential. In Ohio, for example, colleges must not only develop certificate programs, but prove their employability in order to qualify for student aid. One alternative to this, however, is creating certificates that lead to degrees. While challenging in terms of course sequencing and pre-requisite coursework, this approach may be a viable option for some students who are eager to jump into training, but are apprehensive about pursuing all coursework for a degree.

Conclusion

Technical education is, by nature, an evolving component within many community colleges. In an effort to respond to workforce demands, technical departments create strong programs that are designed to offer specialized training at the associate degree level. This level of education, to many students, provides a desirable opportunity for quick training in high-growth areas.

However, as community colleges are also asked to take on a bigger role in bachelor degree completion, promote transfer, and increase academic rigor, these programs often find themselves at the center of the debate between access and success. For decades, community college technical programs have opened the doors for many individuals to receive valuable skills training. As higher education has grown to fit new facets of the workforce and serve a wider net of students, the landscape of these “front door” programs has changed in response. As community college faculty and administrators employ success strategies that raise the qualifications of their students, these potential impacts to technical program enrollment should be considered. While general education coursework embedded within technical curriculum helps to improve the transferability and academic perception of these programs, unintended consequences may surface. As institutions add qualifying layers to previously accessible programs, the access mission on which community colleges were built may begin to diminish. Likewise, student achievement may begin to decrease as well, as additional barriers can decrease a student’s desire to pursue a seemingly unreachable goal.

Discussion Questions

  1. Community colleges are often viewed as the solution to issues of unemployment, underemployment, and regional economic development challenges. Does this role place additional pressure on community colleges to ensure students leave with a credential or degree? Why or why not? What are the other options open to students if they are not academically successful in a technical degree program?
  2. Do you feel as though technical degree programs should include college-level general education classes? Why or why not?
  3. In your opinion, what can be done in order to change the general perception of career/ technical degrees? What information is important for parents, families, and students to consider when reviewing various educational/career routes?

References

Bahr, P. R. (2013). The aftermath of remedial math: investigating the low rate of certificate completion among remedial math Students. Research in higher education, 54(2), 171-200.

Bers, T., & Schuetz, P. (2014). Nearbies: a missing piece of the college completion conundrum. Community College Review, 42(3), 167-183.

Chase, M. M. (2011). Benchmarking equity in transfer policies for career and technical associate’s degrees. Community College Review, 39(4), 376-404.

Dadgar, M. & Weiss, M.J. (2012). Labor market returns to sub-baccalaureate credentials: How much does a community college certificate or degree pay? (CRCC Working Paper 45). New York, NY. Retrieved from: http://capseecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/332_1101.pdf

Packard, B. W., & Jeffers, K. C. (2013). Advising and progress in the community college STEM transfer pathway. NACADA Journal, 33(2), 65-76.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Community Colleges: Why you Should Consider Joining our Team

Almost a decade ago, I was nearing completion of my master’s degree in higher education administration.  Like most students facing an exit from college and into the career world, I was panicked about finding a job in my field.  I can recall experiencing a collective panic as our graduate school cohort flooded the national market with fresh resumes and swapped battlefield stories about on-campus interviews.

I had two on-campus interviews scheduled in one week.  One was for a position much higher than I thought I could land fresh out of graduate school, situated within the Career Services office at a large, rival public four-year university.  I thought I was a perfect fit for the position, as I had just completed a two-year internship at a local higher education non-profit focused on internship program development and had built a friendly rapport with the hiring director.

The second interview was for an academic advisor position at a regional campus within the university system that would soon be granting my master’s degree.  The position was posted for the 11:00 AM- 7:00 PM shift, which immediately placed it at the bottom of my list.  In addition to the awful schedule, I could not picture myself working at a commuter campus.  As an undergraduate, I had experienced what I thought all college students should experience: two years in an on-campus residence hall, followed by two years living among friends in a dark and dingy townhouse in the neighborhood known for great parties every Thursday night.

I poured all of my energy into preparing my presentation and interview responses for the career services position, convinced I belonged in the type of environment from which I had been educated.  To prepare for the regional campus position (which I had convinced myself I would only take out of desperation), I compiled a quick presentation and barely reviewed the job description.

In an unexpected twist of fate, I did not feel an immediate sense of belonging while interviewing for the career services position at the rival four-year university.  I left the interview not entirely sure what had made me feel this way and questioning whether or not the position was actually where I wanted to begin my career.

The next day, somewhat unprepared and rather apathetically, I showed up to interview for the academic advisor position at the regional commuter campus.  Even as I entered the building, I was sure I would never accept a job offer for this position: I was simply a soon-to-be graduate practicing her interview skills.

For those of you who have read the short bio attached to this column, you already know how this story ends.  Within the first 20 minutes of my interview that day, everything I thought I knew about open-access higher education was turned upside down.  I fell in love with the possibility of working at a college campus without residence halls or high admission standards, and with a commuter population.  The interview felt completely right, and the team I later joined upon accepting the job offer remains the most significant influence on my career to date.

My 11:00-7:00 shift ended several months later when the department hired another wave of advisors, and I moved to the earlier shift due to seniority; however, despite the less-than-ideal schedule, I never for a moment regretted taking my first professional step onto a regional campus that offers access to so many students.

Whatever misconceptions you might have about the landscape and environment of open-access colleges, put them aside for a moment.  If you have only ever imagined yourself working at a traditional four-year institution, try to remember the primary reason you were drawn to a career in higher education in the first place.

Chances are, that reason may be fulfilled in a whole new way by a community college, regional campus, or technical college experience.

Growth in the Two-Year Sector

While many four-year colleges and universities have been experiencing a decline in enrollment, two-year colleges and regional campuses are offering students an alternative to the traditional post-secondary path.  As residential colleges add amenities such as renovated residence halls, spacious wellness centers, and infinite food options, many students and their families have begun to search for simpler, less expensive alternatives.

The community college landscape is changing as traditional students, some with the means and academic ability to thrive at premier institutions, select to begin their education on a flexible and less-expensive path.  With media coverage on rising student loan debt and the crippling effect such debt has on recent college graduates, many opt to return to alternative options that either decrease or eliminate long-term financial obligations.  Within an academic advising unit, my team and I regularly encounter students who pay tuition out-of-pocket in an effort to earn a credential without debt.  The two-year environment makes this choice accessible to a larger net of students, not just those from the highest socioeconomic rungs.

National Public Radio (NPR) features a series titled “Paying for College,” and a May 2014 installment focused on the number of students accepted to their first choice colleges who select to attend alternative institutions.  The feature highlighted the 2013 National Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.  While the survey results reflected a positive trend related to the number of students both applying and receiving acceptance to colleges, they are offset by the percentage of students who ultimately do not enroll at their first choice institutions.  When surveyed, the majority of students indicated that cost was the primary reason for declining offers to attend their first choice institutions (61.2%).  In addition, 60% of first-generation college students stated cost or financial aid offers as a primary concern when selecting a college, compared to 46% of continuing generation students asked the same question.  Community colleges by their very nature are an obvious choice for many first-generation college students, and this survey indicates that overall cost is a large concern for many students, regardless of background.

While cost is obviously an important factor for many students, students still need to consider whether or not a two-year college can deliver a quality product that will provide a return on investment.  As partnerships and pathways between two-year colleges, regional campuses, and four-year universities become stronger and more defined, students are presented with more options to build and complete their educational experiences.  For example, the community college at which I currently work has established formal partnerships with eight major colleges and universities in the state, many of which begin to meet with our students within their first year of their associate degree curriculum.  Some partners have become such a regular presence on our campus that students are often more connected to university advisors, admissions representatives, and student life professionals than the students who began at the four-year institution from day one.  These strong pathways help students see how their community college education can lead to advanced degrees without the burden of shopping for completion programs on their own after graduation day.

A Shift towards Technical and Applied Education

The regional campus where I first worked as a professional academic advisor was situated on a shared campus.  Our campus neighbor was a technical college, and students regularly moved between the institutions due to physical proximity and career indecision.

When the local economy took a downturn, both institutions saw an influx of unemployed individuals seeking alternative career paths.  As state and local programs emerged to assist displaced workers, many recipients came through our doors seeking baccalaureate degrees; however, when faced with four- to five-year education plans, many ultimately determined that a technical associate’s degree from our neighboring institution may be a better option in order to quickly retool in a new field and return to the workforce.

This mentality may still be lingering, and perhaps even increasing, as securing employment immediately following a bachelor’s degree still proves competitive and often challenging.  Technical associate’s degrees offered by community colleges, on the other hand, are often already linked with employers, in order to serve local workforce development needs. For example, the community college at which I am currently employed has several degree programs that were created at the demand of major area employers who are in need of graduates with technical expertise in areas such as mechanical engineering, surgical sterilization, insurance, and computer science.  Likewise, the community college also provides direct pathways to meaningful employment in the public sector through partnerships with local fire, emergency response, and police academy training.  At our community college, Commencement Day is filled with stories of graduates who are walking into lucrative employment positions paying close to or equal to those secured by university graduates who have yet to gain technical experience and expertise.

Unfortunately, many high school students still receive societal pressure to complete college preparatory coursework and pursue bachelor’s degrees upon graduation.  Career and technical training provides a strong and viable option, however, and delivers promising returns for high school students.  In Ohio, for example, only 22% of students grades 9-12 are enrolled in career and technical training programs; however, these students boast a 98% high school graduation rate with over 60% opting to further their education past high school.  Many of these programs are perhaps even more challenging than traditional secondary school curriculum, often including between 450-900 hours of applied training in key workforce areas (Ohio Department of Education, 2014).

As states work to address employment needs, high school graduation rates, and degree attainment numbers, technical education programs and their community college partners hold covetable seats at the discussion table.

Professionally Challenging Environment

Open-access education environments, such as regional campuses and community colleges, present unique challenges for student affairs professionals and faculty who work to meet state and federal student success and completion standards.  While selective institutions can adjust admissions criteria to yield those most likely to meet their academic standards, this practice defies the very mission of this country’s community colleges and regional campuses.  Today’s community college population includes many academically prepared students; yet, open access draws a significant population of underprepared individuals as well.

As a leader working on student success initiatives, this population challenges me when adopting even the most accepted best practices in the field.  Nearly every research article, conference presentation, and listserv topic must be analyzed further with questions like, “How would this apply to a curriculum condensed to two years?” or, “How would this look in an environment that accepts all, regardless of academic record?”  While education, by its very nature, demands continuous learning, the community college environment energizes this learning in a whole new way.

For individuals who are passionate about making a difference in students’ lives, professional positions within community colleges will not disappoint.  All student interactions are unique, and student backgrounds are diverse, which continually reinforces a commitment to the work and mission of the college.

Perhaps one of the most powerful ongoing lessons I have learned through working in this sector of education is compassion and the subsequent ability to avoid judgment.  The student populations with whom I interact have challenged me to eliminate subconscious biases and truly listen to each student’s story.  While fast-paced environments often promote a problem/solution approach to service, this model cannot apply to a population that reflects such a breadth of needs.

Likewise, each student has a very different reason for being present at the college, most of which are not apparent at first impression.  My assumptions about students’ backgrounds, educational history, previous degree attainment, and socioeconomic status are proven incorrect so often that I have simply eliminated assumption from my practice and focused solely on listening to students’ individual stories.  Without this daily challenge, and at such a rich and intense level, this type of mental training would take nearly a lifetime to fully develop.

Conclusion

Many myths, and perhaps some truths, about two-year colleges remain prevalent in our field.  I believe nearly every sector of the working world, as in society as a whole, holds biases about certain work environments, organizations, or professional affiliations.  We all hold misconceptions about what impact certain career choices may have on our professional, financial, or personal goals.  In challenging these biases and examining our own values as educators, we may either confirm or question where our personal energy is being spent.

Working at a two-year institution has helped me to truly “walk the talk” as an educator.   Early on and perhaps rather unconsciously throughout my profession training, I developed the belief that any individual can be elevated through education, and that one’s circumstances are always within a few steps of change.  Upon examining our education and workforce needs, I also believe there is space in society for all individuals to grow to their fullest potential and give back, contribute, and thrive.  Working in an environment that meets students where they are academically, economically, and socially helps to feed the passion that led me to become an educator in the first place.

I encourage you to imagine yourself working in the two-year college environment and challenge the voice in your head that pushes you to pursue employment at other institutions.  Take the time to examine the philosophies that drive your work in this field and also the biases that may keep you from responding to the challenge of open access.

Many of us love this work, and we are always looking for the best and brightest to join us on the path less traveled.

Would you be up for both the challenge and the reward?

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the biases associated with working at a two-year college or regional campus?
  2. Do you ever work with students who you feel would succeed in a career or technical program?  How do you work with these students?  Do you believe any biases exist about career and technical education?
  3. Many students focus on cost when considering options for college.  Do you believe cost should play a role in students’ decision if they are accepted to a first-choice college?  Why or why not?
  4. What excites you about the possibility of working at a two-year college?  What do you perceive as your personal challenges in doing so?  How does the mission of open-access align with your beliefs about education?

References

Eagan, K., Lozano, J., Hurtado, S., & Case, M. (2014, February 1). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2013. . Retrieved May 29, 2014, from http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2013.pdf

Ohio Department of Education. (2014). Preparing Students for College and Careers. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from http://www.ohioacte.org/Resources/Documents/Legislative/ODECTEFactSheet.pdf

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

“I Couldn’t Get to Campus, Buy the Book, Access the Web:” Looking Beyond the Excuses

“I Couldn’t Get to Campus, Buy the Book, Access the Web:” Looking Beyond the Excuses

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College

Community Campus, Community Challenges

Open access was not a foreign concept to me when I stepped into an administrative position at a large, urban community college. Previous to my current position, I had faced challenges serving the masses at an open access regional campus of a public research institution. Through this experience, I became accustomed to motivating students with low placement scores, identifying resources for low-income students, and helping students remove the barriers that initially stood in between them and academic success. In fact, this type of challenging student affairs work was precisely the reason I zoned in on community college opportunities when the time came to take the next professional step.

Now, two years after taking that step, I find myself less and less prepared to handle the issues brought to me through the open gateway. The reason for this sense is not due to incompetence, or a lack of understanding of student barriers in open access institutions. Rather, student stories have become deeper and more complex as I have learned to ask a few more questions, and no longer settle for short, simple answers. Suddenly, the student who has been dropped for non-attendance is not just a lazy, unmotivated student in need of more academic advising. The dismissed student pleading her case to the Academic Review Board may not be just another student who did not bother to access tutoring, and the student struggling to make ends meet did not necessarily misuse his or her financial aid package.

The community college environment does not provide student support professionals the luxury of focusing conversations solely on academics, and professionals entering the two year college environment should consider this component carefully. Our students’ lives are intertwined with their educational experience in unique ways the traditional student experience may not reflect. While the traditional student joins his or her peers in rituals such as purchasing extra-long twin sheets, packing for overnight orientations, and anticipating roommate assignments, a significant number of community college students jump headfirst into their education without laying the appropriate foundation to be successful. In many ways, community college students are often extraordinary time managers, weaving class in with multiple jobs, children, and other complexities. In other ways, community college students are regularly only one misstep away from watching the carefully constructed tower come tumbling down.

Removing the Invisible Barriers

The individuals on the Academic Advising team I supervise genuinely enjoy student interactions, often stating that the conversation surrounding the structure of course planning, grade point averages, and deadlines is what keeps them motivated to continue working with a tough community college population. Often, when an Advisor has become unmotivated or overwhelmed, I find myself reminding them to take the time to really view each student as a story and to ask probing questions to find the real reason a student may be succeeding or struggling. When working with students this way, however, Advisors and other student affairs professionals need to be prepared for what may be revealed by the student.

Recently, a distressed student arrived in our office just before the end of walk-in hours. She had been dropped from classes in the fourth week of the term due to non-attendance, a routine scenario by any Advisor’s standards. Rather than launching into the steps by which the student could be re-enrolled, or referring to another office, the student was prompted for more information. Ultimately, the student revealed she had been enrolled in online course sections, though a recent change in her living situation had prevented her from accessing her online materials. Likewise, the student’s un-enrolled status would shortly impact her financial situation as well, and she feared an eviction notice would be arriving next.

While this situation may seem extreme to some, it is all too common in a community college setting where student success often hinges delicately upon fragile life circumstances. Within a setting that often serves as the first rung towards upward mobility, students’ lives are not always stabilized enough to support academic focus. However, open access to education provides students in dire life circumstances with a pathway to realistically transform hope into tangible progress.

In many community college settings, student affairs departments take on unexpected roles as basic need providers. As stories of hunger, lack of transportation, homelessness, and financial distress surface during advising appointments, financial aid interactions, and student life activities, the College is often faced with a decision to respond or turn a blind eye. Strategic student success conversations only scratch a superficial surface if these issues are not discussed.

In Ohio, the Ohio Benefits Bank provides individuals access to a network of public assistance programs and community resources. Individuals in need of food, cash, medical, or utilities assistance can apply for support programs via a central application process, and any individual in the community can obtain certification to assist individuals in navigating this process. Last academic year, our College employed an AmeriCorps VISTA, housed in Student Life, who served our student population in this role. When the VISTA service year concluded, the gap in services was apparent. Without somewhere to send a student in need, many student affairs offices and faculty struggled to connect students to resources to meet basic food, shelter, clothing, and transportation needs.

In order to attempt to build a student basic needs support network on campus, I recently helped to organize an Ohio Benefits Bank Counselor training to certify twenty-four individuals from key student affairs offices. During the two-day training, members of the campus community were introduced to federal poverty guidelines, as well as state programs that can be accessed to benefit qualified individuals. In addition, the trainees learned how to guide individuals through the Benefits Bank application process and ethical guidelines associated with providing such assistance. The trainee group was comprised of both faculty and staff, as well as selected students serving in leadership roles within the College.

While the establishment of such a network is still new on our campus, and not yet institutionalized, individual departments are beginning to utilize their Ohio Benefits Bank trained staff members in times of need. For example, on several occasions in Advising, I have connected a student with non-academic issues to an internal Benefits Bank Counselor to discuss state programs that can remove financial barriers that are complicating the student’s educational situation. Likewise, these types of referrals are also followed up with communication to Counseling Services to provide additional outreach and support.

Dismissed Students: What is Our Obligation?

A holistic approach to working with students is complicated when a student is dismissed from the institution and can no longer access the college’s support services. What, after all, is the college’s obligation to a student who has not met the standards to allow continued enrollment? Should an open enrollment college play a role in the student’s transition to his or her next step?

Within our Advising team, we began to notice this particular needs gap during our readmission process. During this process, students must petition to re-enter the College after academic dismissal, and the decision to readmit rests largely on the proactive steps the student takes to remove barriers. Students petitioning for readmission are encouraged to seek out career counseling, clarify goals, obtain mental health counseling or resolve financial problems in order to support their case for re-entry. While the college offers an extensive menu of such support services, how does the dismissed student without connections or community support access such assistance?

In response, Advising collaborated with Counseling Services on campus to compile a list of community resources broken down by category: mental health, academic assistance/literacy programs, mentorship programs, career guidance, etc. Students seeking readmission are provided with this list to help them connect to resources outside of the College that can help them strengthen their success plans and provide concrete evidence of commitment before petitioning to re-enter the institution. Likewise, this list of resources can serve as an aid for students who need to stop out due to life circumstances, but still need access to support services once provided by the community college environment.

Challenges

For professionals who view education as the great socioeconomic equalizer, perhaps the most difficult student interactions are those that encourage breaks, delays, and time-outs. To the college administrator or faculty member who valiantly attempts to remove barriers of any kind, discouraging further persistence feels unnatural and defeating.

And yet as student stories unravel and professionals begin to ask the tough questions, the solutions we can offer may not be enough. One of the challenges of asking more, doing more, and providing more is that it still may not be enough. With enrollment pressure and retention rates pushing many decisions, it takes a truly student-centered individual to recommend stopping out until the student’s life and environment has stabilized. However, open enrollment institutions owe this type of respect and holistic approach to the students to which it extends enrollment. Often, a student experiencing a myriad of barriers is simply unable to allow his or her academic potential to shine until other basic needs are met. Deferring continuation, in some cases, may actually promote student success in the long run. The challenge is, of course, that helping students in this way has the potential to adversely impact institutional retention goals, and ultimately, college funding.

Additionally, nearly all colleges are often challenged by traditional academic culture, which sets expectations high and promotes independence among those enrolled. Many institutions, though expanded to include more student support services in the last several decades, expect that students have removed some of their own barriers prior to initial enrollment. With the exception of those who interact closely with students, the general population may assume that college-bound students have resolved issues of financial distress, hunger, homelessness, or transportation prior to enrollment. This assumption of privilege can prevent faculty, staff, and community members from asking students the questions that can lead them to assistance. Likewise, this bias can cloud judgment when a student indicates he or she cannot attend class, complete work on a computer, purchase materials or find a safe place to study at night. Without an awareness of the reality of such situations among the student body, many faculty or staff interactions with students may never reach a level in which help can be provided.

Conclusion

Based on popular research, most institutions point the finger at the expected barriers such as low college readiness, first-generation status, or socio-economic disadvantage. While these are the most identifiable (and perhaps the most measurable) correlations to a student’s ability to persist, community colleges perhaps risk overlooking deeper reasons why students drop away from their studies or withdraw all together. While nearly all college students possess some risk factors that may prevent them from completion, the open access institution cannot afford to avoid the difficult conversations or to rest entirely on popular research.

Community colleges are strategically positioned to help students attain educational levels that can improve lifetime income and employability, thus breaking generational poverty cycles. This position, however, challenges the community college environment to stretch beyond the expected student affairs landscape, and to provide a holistic approach to wraparound services.

The community college landscape continues to change at a rapid rate, and often reflects the struggles of society as a whole. Community college staff, faculty, and personnel need to feel confident in their ability to engage in conversations about real life issues that may prevent students from completing individual courses, semesters and ultimately, credentials. Unfortunately, we cannot assume that every individual who enters the community college has stabilized his or her life to support academic success, or that even the most prepared student will not face life altering challenges during his or her enrollment.

The community college, in a very real sense, truly serves and lifts the community in which it is located. In order to appropriately serve students, an understanding of the surrounding community, connection to local resources, and dialogue about social issues impacting the population are just as critical as traditional student success services. A community college is in a position of service, and any college that opens its doors to anyone willing to learn must also provide innovative support for its students to be able to do just that.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you see parallels between your campus (whether two or four year) and the basic needs barriers presented in this article? Can you think of a recent student situation that was deeper than what it appeared to be on the surface?
  2. What biases may you have about the students who attend your college? Do you generally assume that students have what they need, outside of the campus, to succeed?
  3. Do you feel as though a college has an obligation to help students access basic needs? Why or why not?
  4. If you answered “no” to question #3, how would you guide a student who discloses hunger, shelter, transportation, or financial issues impacting his or her success?

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

A First Step: The Unique Needs of Two Community College Populations

A First Step: The Unique Needs of Two Community College Populations

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College
Cassi Stewart
Columbus State Community College
Lorrie Ritchey
Columbus State Community College

While foundations of student and academic affairs remain similar when professionals move between selective to open-enrollment institutions, perhaps the steepest learning curve is associated with understanding some unique aspects of the student experience. When the doors of an institution are propped open to all, the student body reflects a mosaic of rich backgrounds that challenge college personnel in new and ever-changing ways.

Recently, a colleague was describing to me a moment in which she recognized a gap in knowledge between herself and a coworker who had spent the majority of her career at a selective four-year institution, which highlighted the varied experiences our students face.  The conversation had been centered around a population of students that community college professionals serve on a near daily basis, yet she quickly realized her conversation partner seemed slightly puzzled and was grasping to find common experience. Recognizing the gap, my colleague stopped to provide context to the discussion.

Increasingly, the community college at which I work is challenged to meet the unique student affairs needs of two emerging populations entering our door: students entering college with felonious backgrounds (referred to in this article as restored citizens), and students impacted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation. Students from both experiences are often faced with extreme barriers even at the application stage, and the barriers do not necessarily disappear once students crack open their first college textbook.

Restored Citizens

As the criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism, individuals with criminal backgrounds are encouraged to seek sustainable opportunities upon release. Often, conditions of parole require that an individual leaving the prison system seek gainful employment or pursue full-time education, though many will find both paths blocked by numerous barriers. As job opportunities decrease for restored citizens immediately following incarceration, education becomes an attainable next step for many leaving our prison systems.  Likewise, many prison systems have established partnerships with online or local colleges to offer educational opportunities to qualified individuals during incarceration. For many afforded this opportunity while serving sentences, their motivation to learn or build upon earned credits remains high after release.

Community colleges, by their open enrollment nature, provide restored citizens the most accessible path to education and degree attainment. While many could be accepted to selective institutions, barriers related to campus safety concerns, on-campus housing restrictions, and tuition costs prevent some restored citizens from even bothering to apply to traditional four-year institutions. In addition, several students we have seen in our advising office have described the community college campus environment as more accepting of all students’ experiences and diverse backgrounds, when compared to four-year colleges. Whether this difference is true or perceived, a restored citizen is perhaps likely to follow this instinct and seek out the path of least resistance and judgment.

When we call to mind the challenges even the most traditional college students face in order to begin classes (e.g., submitting materials in accordance to enrollment deadlines, applying for financial aid, securing housing, finalizing a schedule), one can immediately begin to speculate how these challenges can be multiplied for the individual with a criminal background. Waiting until after release to apply for financial aid can delay an individual’s ability to enroll, while some may not even realize they are eligible to apply for aid during the end of incarceration. Likewise, the pressure of setting up living arrangements, reviewing parole requirements, and the emotional challenges associated with reestablishing support systems may leave little energy for these individuals to transition to the role of college student.

Even the most open colleges and universities still employ a review process for students who indicate a criminal conviction on their application. While a necessary screening process, these steps can delay the student’s acceptance and decrease motivation.

At the community college where we currently work, an enrollment review team is responsible for meeting with prospective students who have violent felony histories that have been identified as being a risk to the rest of the student population or having particular challenges to assimilating to the college environment. This enrollment review team is housed in the student life department but includes staff from many areas including counseling, public safety, advising services, career services, and student conduct. This team meets weekly with identified prospective students along with a panel of three staff members: a facilitator from student conduct, a representative of the behavioral interventional team, and a member of student services. The goal of this panel is to both determine threat assessment and to help with any obstacles students may encounter once they are admitted. The panel has the opportunity to admit students immediately, to defer admittance to a later date, and/or to provide students with important resources to help make their transition easier.

In 2012-2013, only 7.4% of those interviewed by the college’s enrollment review team had their admission deferred based on the interview. While securing acceptance to the college provides students with access to education, additional challenges generally follow as the student explores career options and opportunities for growth and leadership. These experiences, while commonplace for the traditional college student, present exponential hurdles for restored citizens.

At our institution, departments have specifically identified obstacles for this group of students and have taken steps to provide support for these students in overcoming their challenges. The career services office has developed specific resources for these students including “10 Steps for an Effective Job Search” and a guide to restricted and sensitive occupations for restored citizens. Career Services also keeps a list of community resources that can help facilitate a restored citizen’s transition into the college and work environment. Advising Services has also taken proactive steps by gathering information about majors, such as allied healthcare and education, which often require background checks and will be nearly impossible for a student with a criminal background to pursue. Likewise, Advising Services maintains strong relationships with academic programs that can accommodate those with felony histories. Represented on the enrollment review team, Advising Services also serves as an important connector to support services that promote success such as tutoring services, disability services, mental health counseling, and community resources.

In 2012, a report released by the U.S. Department of Education highlights additional barriers that impact a restored citizen’s ability to gain or complete post-secondary education upon release. While many prison facilities offer education programs through community college partnerships, previously incarcerated individuals may experience issues regarding credit articulation, repeated withdrawals due to relocation within the prison system, and unfamiliarity with current technology. The report also highlights the importance of immediate support upon release to ensure individuals are linked with pathways to complete their education and notes that gaps between prison education experiences and post-release coursework may impact persistence. Other recommendations include aligning prison education programs with current workforce needs, as well as utilizing universally accepted assessments and curriculum whenever possible to ensure applicability after release.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

In addition to serving significant numbers of restored citizens, community colleges also regularly provide education pathways to individuals with unique international backgrounds. Within the last year, our college has watched closely as legislation related to undocumented individuals has evolved. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a process by which undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children may apply for deferred deportation. This status, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allows individuals to apply for a two-year deferred action window, during which they may pursue employment, job training, or post-secondary education. While qualifications and regulations related to DACA are stringent and do not provide a pathway to citizenship, it is renewable and allows undocumented individuals to pursue a college education. For obvious reasons such as cost, accessibility, and decreased time to degree, community colleges are a likely option for many students in DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, 2012).

Surprisingly, many young individuals who qualify for DACA realize they are undocumented rather suddenly. Since the United States does not restrict undocumented children from receiving a K-12 education, some individuals brought to this country as young children have been completely integrated into United States schools and may even hold high school diplomas from a United States high school. While applying for college, attempting to fill out federal financial aid paperwork, or pursuing employment, individuals may suddenly become aware of their status as an undocumented individual at risk of deportation. For these students and others, DACA provides a window of opportunity.

Like many community colleges, our institution is quickly responding to the student support needs of this growing population. Providing DACA students access to the opportunities available to them at our community college is inherently tied to the institution’s mission to educate, inspire, and provide students with the opportunity to achieve their goals. In autumn 2013, the college began offering in-state tuition to students in DACA status, who had previously been required to pay out-of-state tuition in order to attend. While individuals in DACA status are generally ineligible for financial aid, this change in tuition structure puts a pathway to education or training within affordable reach.

While some undocumented students eligible for DACA status are reluctant to identify themselves, our college received 80 student applications coded as DACA. Just over half of these students registered and paid in-state tuition. In order to respond to the unique cultural, emotional, and support needs of this population, the college created a DACA resource group composed of staff and faculty from various academic and student service departments. Meeting monthly, the group focuses on policies and best practices related to students in DACA status, as well as efforts that bring awareness to faculty and staff.

This cross-functional team has also created a website for prospective and current DACA students. The website will help bring awareness to the college’s in-state tuition option and also includes information about the enrollment process, scholarships, local resources and community groups. In addition, the DACA resource group is in the process of creating a survey to hopefully identify the unique needs of this student population and draw conclusions about how the college can best serve them.

Similar to the restored citizen population at many community colleges, DACA students will face barriers to their academic goals as well. With many programs requiring background checks, social security numbers, and proof of citizenship, DACA students often find themselves extremely limited in their educational options. While DACA defers action against undocumented individuals for two years, they may apply for renewal and eventually secure United States citizenship.  However, pursuing and completing any program with such restrictions will prove challenging in the given timeframe.

Conclusion

Community colleges are and always have been well positioned to serve students from nearly any imaginable background, ability level, and socioeconomic rung. Open enrollment institutions seem to reflect and magnify the unique situations that exist within our communities and country, and yet provide an accessible step for growth and progress.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating details about working within this setting is the responsiveness to which two-year colleges respond to the world as it knocks on the door.  Regularly, community colleges establish quick and thoughtful changes of course in order to respond to a community need, a workforce niche, or a changing social trend. The work is challenging yet rewarding, and provides a front row seat to watch individuals transform and grow and learn.

In our advising office, our team is surprised daily by students’ stories and the intricate details of their lives. Their paths to education are often winding, filled with barriers to overcome, and yet open to possibility. Often, the motivation of students from the restored citizen and DACA populations, among others, is astounding and focused. These students, in many cases, have climbed emotional, academic, social, and economic mountains to arrive at our doorsteps, and yet our focus as staff, faculty, and administrators should find inspiration in the fact that they chose the path in the first place.

Surely that kind of motivation can be harnessed to move an individual forward, providing we match it with a desire to understand, evolve, and develop as the professionals who support them.

Discussion Questions

  1. From your current vantage point (faculty, staff, administrator, student), what do you believe the top five challenges are for individuals seeking education after incarceration?  For students in DACA status?
  2. Often, individuals seeking DACA status may feel conflicted about reporting personal information about the immigration status of their family.  How might this process impact an individual’s transition to college student?
  3. How can colleges help both restored citizens and DACA students research career options, some of which may be limited to them?
  4. Many formerly incarcerated individuals are drawn to two-year or community college as a first step in their educational paths.  Do you believe that this is the best first step for a restored citizen?  Why or why not?  How might individuals with a criminal background experience their transition to a four-year institution?

References

Columbus State Community College (n.d.) Deferred action for childhood arrivals. Retrieved from http://www.cscc.edu/admissions/daca

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (n.d.). A reentry education model: Supporting education and career advancement for low-skilled individuals in corrections. Washington, D.C., 2012: Tolbert.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (n.d.) Deferred action for childhood arrivals. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/deferred-action-childhood-arrivals

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Challenge without Support: How can we Create a Meaningful First Year for Distance Learners?

Challenge without Support: How can we Create a Meaningful First Year for Distance Learners?

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College

A few semesters ago, I took on a section of my institution’s first-year experience course. Despite my relatively short time as an administrator at my institution, I initially felt confident in my ability to lead students through their first semester, build a sense of community, and connect them to critical resources they would need to employ in order to move through the college. My years of experience in working with first-year students in open enrollment institutions and a solid background in advising and student support services fostered a false sense of self-assurance about what the next fifteen weeks would be like.

This first-year experience course, I quickly learned, would prove to be different from the rest. The students enrolled in my section were not unlike any other college students I had worked with. The modules on time management, career development, and academic planning were not foreign to me. The difference, however, was that the students were taking the course online.

As the online course progressed, I found myself struggling to connect the dots between foundational principles of retention and practical application. Knowing that student engagement in the first year plays a key role in retention, my trained eye read students’ discussion board posts looking for clues that would unlock the secret to each individuals formula for success. As many involved with first-year experience programs do, I immediately went on high alert for success programs, initiatives, and involvement opportunities to share with my class.

In the online environment, however, helping students create a meaningful first-year experience proved more challenging than I had anticipated. The tried and true options for engagement, such as intramurals, leadership programs, and face-to-face advising were eliminated from my professional toolbox.

During a division meeting several weeks into the semester, our college’s student life department discussed the introduction of intramural soccer into our campus programming. My mind immediately flashed to a journal assignment I had just read in which the student stated that he wished he could find an adult community soccer league to make friends after high school. I made a mental note to connect the student to the college’s new league…only to remember that he was taking the first-year experience course from several states away.

When the announcement regarding a new cycle of Student Ambassador recruitment was released, I had the perfect student in mind. She had taken on a leadership role even within our small online community, and would benefit greatly from the experience of representing her college. The only barrier was that she was logging into her college from three hours away.

Finally, I began to notice how difficult it was to link this group of first-year students to the departments that could best assist them with various process-based tasks. My nearly scripted directions (“…go to this office, with this form, and get this signature…”) no longer proved beneficial. Students needed to rely on phone, email, chat, video tutorials, and electronic signature systems in order to move processes forward or obtain the answers they needed. Students reaching out to student support services were often at the mercy of the department’s ability to engage in email or phone correspondence. In many student support offices all over the country, electronic correspondence takes a backseat when traffic in the physical location begins to increase. Priority is often given to those who stand in the line, visit the office, or are present in the physical sense, leaving limited time for other channels of access.

A study conducted by the Center for Community College Research (Jaggars, 2011) shows evidence that while students are certainly challenged by learning in the online environment, they are often unable to access the support services they need to receive tutoring, advising, and assistance with completion of other college processes.

For decades, colleges have focused on creating the perfect environment for success through the development of Student Success offices, Student Life departments, Student Accessibility teams, Counseling Support Services, Academic Advising for all; but are we prepared to deliver this same safety net to students opting to take our courses from other locations?

Sanford’s theory of challenge and support (1967) has been a foundational theory in student development for decades, inviting us to develop safe environments where individuals are faced with challenges that promote growth and development. Students enrolling in online courses are certainly exposed to challenge, as successful completion requires a commitment to independent learning and sophisticated time management skills. However, with limited online resources and student support infrastructure lagging slightly behind, are they receiving the support they need for the challenge to truly foster growth?

Isolation is one of the primary retention barriers to student persistence (Tinto, 1987), and colleges have poured resources into efforts to deconstruct this significant roadblock to success. Nearly every institution seeks to build loyalty among its students in the hopes that connection will keep the spark of motivation alive in the students it attracts. Developing a meaningful first year often requires the careful integration of intentional safety nets in the form of timely and intentional academic advising, career coaching, quality student life programming, accessible academic support, and inclusion efforts. The duplication of services, despite universal acceptance of their collective impact, is a daunting and expensive charge for many institutions extending their reach into cyberspace.

Some institutions, however, have begun to build the infrastructure to adequately support the unique and challenging online learning environment. The University of Cincinnati boasts high student satisfaction related to online degree programs and courses, according to recent National Survey of Student Engagement responses, as well as an 85% success rate (students earning a C- or better) in online coursework. Students based high levels of satisfaction with the University’s online environment on the availability of academic advising services, strong relationships with faculty and staff, peer support, and response times. Enrollment services are streamlined, allowing registration and payment through a single online system, and student persistence and success is carefully monitored throughout the term. The University of Cincinnati, though intentional in its creation of a successful online environment, has created what students perceive as an ideal online environment by simply expanding upon existing student support services. The University has committed to offering the same quality level of student support regardless of the gateway from which the student is accessing the institution, recognizing that connection and support are the keys to student success both on and off campus (Clark, Holstrom, and Millacci, 2009).

While these key student support services are essential to student success and promoting connection to the institution, the role of social interaction and community engagement in retention theory cannot be overstated. Most college faculty or administrators can recall at least one anecdote in which a student’s decision to persist was based on a seemingly casual and insignificant interaction with another member of the campus community. These interactions occur daily on college campuses, from friendly discussions while waiting for class to begin, to brief daily transactions with a caring member of the campus community. These experiences, while difficult to intentionally replicate, compound to create a student’s perception of his or her college environment.

After several email conversations with one of my traditional-aged online students, she simply showed up in my office one afternoon. She arrived at my office’s front desk, exasperated, explaining that she was just really tired of communicating with everyone via email and felt it was more efficient to just come in and find the person. I met with the student for no more than fifteen minutes, conversing and answering her questions. She left my office relieved to have finally met her instructor.

Surprisingly, however, the online environment may promote more emotional and social development than one may think. A survey of students enrolled in online classes determined that students do in fact experience emotional responses to their coursework in the form of humor, compassion, motivation, and empathy. While interactions with others are limited by proximity and distance, new research suggests that the level of social engagement necessary for students to learn may be attainable in an online environment (Meyer and Jones, 2012). Colleges that can identify strategies to promote online social interaction that is comparable to the opportunities afforded to on-campus students (student organizations, leadership opportunities, service learning, and other student affairs programs) may begin to see increases in online student motivation.

If Sanford’s challenge and support theory is to serve as one of the foundations of educational design, understanding the pitfalls of online students, their dissatisfaction, and struggles to connect proves an important step in designing the ideal remote learning experience. While the online learner’s challenges manifest in a different environment, the principles of student retention and persistence remain the same. Only distance, limited resources, and our own creative limitations stand as barriers to delivering the same level of support provided to our on-campus learners.

Adapting existing experiences and services for online students is a practice most colleges will soon not be able to neglect. Distance learners are on the rise, even among students pursuing degrees in traditional, on-campus environments. Among all college students, more than 30% enroll in at least one online course, and the rate of enrollment continues to climb (Babson Survey Research Group, 2013).  With many public institutions shifting funding away from access measures towards success, increased enrollment through online sections can no longer be a priority unless the safety nets are in place to support students who accept the challenge.

As decision makers, factoring the unique needs of distance learning students into our daily conversations may promote creative approaches to engagement that could benefit all students, not just those logging in from the outside. When processes are streamlined in a manner that caters to distance learning students, on-campus students can also take advantage of more convenient access points. Social networking trends that create community within online courses, such as blogging, discussion boards, photo submissions, and video can not only unite those logging in from afar, but provide exciting arenas in which other students can interact.

Within areas in which meaningful connection is of primary concern (academic advising, career counseling, student life, etc), online workshops, Blackboard Communities, and group chats may encourage resistant students from both on and off campus to engage. Online student life programming in the form of leadership certificate courses, online student organizations, service learning components, and training and utilization of remote Campus Ambassadors could extend the reach of the college experience well past the walls of the institution, and enhance student success in both college and beyond. Such innovative forms of program delivery uphold the values of higher education by fostering student growth beyond academic content and the goals of the classroom, even when the experience is primarily achieved through cyberspace.

Academic advising initiatives such as early alert systems, interventions, and referral systems also hold potential for professionals to maintain levels of support that are consistent among both online and on-campus students. The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) has established CAS standards for advising distance learners, including the designation of a single point of contact to streamline services offered to distance learners, orientation programs that help guide students through the online environment, and facilitation of frequent interaction between staff and online students to promote engagement (NACADA, 2010).

In many institutions, faculty were the first to take the leap into online innovation, forced to respond to the swift increase in demand for courses and full degrees online. While student affairs administrators are now grappling with how to complement these alternative delivery methods, faculty and instructors are key partners in alternative content delivery. For many instructors, the need to develop creative solutions that promote growth among online students has become a common practice term after term.

Within many college environments, the first-year seminar course is often where all of us collide. These courses are sometimes a marriage of the academic and student affairs experience, offering each of us a glimpse into the challenges our counterparts tackle in our similar yet different roles. In these courses, conversation begins to emerge, as faculty and student affairs professionals begin to examine the holistic experience of the distance learner from different vantage points. The responsive nature of first-year experience courses also allows for a certain level of experimentation, and provides an important platform for which an institution can communicate its commitment to the success of all students, regardless of location.

Few educators would argue against the idea that the college experience expands far beyond academic content. For many of us who experienced our undergraduate years without the option to take courses online, the growth that occurred during those years seems difficult to attain without the physical setting in which it occurred. However, for today’s student, online and independent learning is not just a more flexible option; it is quickly becoming a mainstream experience.

Guiding students through their first-year experience is a challenge for most faculty and student affairs professionals regardless of setting. With roadblocks and barriers constantly challenging even the most intense of aspirations, today’s students need supportive environments that allow them to properly navigate the college experience. As distance learning evolves and increases the enrollment potential of many institutions, colleges are under more pressure than ever to find new ways of helping online students reach critical developmental milestones that will retain them and aid in their persistence.

As for me, working with first year students in an online setting has shifted my own professional paradigm towards increased inclusion and accessibility. When brainstorming new ideas with my team, or developing program proposals for an upcoming academic year, I cannot help but to consider how an online learner may access the service. Transformational experiences are what fuel the minds of educators, and, in my experience, the lessons learned from our students are often the ones that generate the most progress in our field.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you feel as though colleges and universities should offer student support services to distance learners, or should institutions focus simply on content/ course delivery? Do you believe distance learners expect student support services?
  2. Some institutions have decided not to join the online marketplace, and continue to offer coursework only in traditional formats. Do you believe institutions that have chosen to forgo this market are making a wise decision? Why or why not?
  3. In your current role (faculty, staff, administrator) how can you improve services or connect with distance learners? In addition, how can you foster institutional loyalty among your online student population?

References

Babson Survey Research Group. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online
Education in the United States. Retrieved from:http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html

Clark, M., Holstrom, L., & Millacci, A.M. (2009). University of Cincinatti case study of online
student success. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 49-55.

Jaggars, S. (2011). Online learning: Does it help low-income and underprepared students? CCRC
Working Paper No. 26. Assessment of Evidence Series. Community College Research
Center, Columbia University.

Meyer, K.A. & Jones, S.J. (2012). Do students experience “social intelligence,” laughter, and
other emotions online?. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 99-111.

NACADA. (2010). NACADA standards for advising distance learners. Retrieved from:
http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Commissions/C23/documents/DistanceStandards.pdf

Sanford, N. (1967). Self & society: social change and individual development. New
York, NY: Atherton Press.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.